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Innovation in Education: Collaborating Across Disciplines

Innovation in Education: Collaborating Across Disciplines

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Dr. Grace Glass, Dean, School of Arts and Humanities

Innovation within the School of Arts and Humanities requires collaboration across disciplines in order to create new ways of thinking, learning and teaching. In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with Dr. Grace Glass, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University (APU), about how her department is collaborating with faculty in other academic disciplines like STEM to create new and innovative courses.

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Focusing on innovation is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic as many brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning are trying to figure out how to deliver remote education. Learn how APU, which has been a 100-percent online university for three decades, has integrated innovation into its course structure and addressed the complexities that go along with delivering distance education.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Dr. Grace Glass, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University. And today we’re talking about innovation in the School of Arts and Humanities. And welcome, Dr. Glass.

Dr. Grace Glass: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I’m just going to jump right into the first question. And so innovation in many ways, is both concrete, and a very philosophical concept. And so can you define what innovation is for everybody listening?

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah. So I think you’re right. It is a concrete practice, and it is also a philosophical concept that we have to keep in mind as we go about and solve problems in higher education. I think innovation for me really means bringing new ways of thinking and acting to problems that arise around us in the community, in communications, in higher education, in teaching and learning.

And so that can be trying new strategies. But it can also be thinking in ways that perhaps are interdisciplinary, that aren’t about keeping your problem-solving skills within a particular discipline or silo, but using a variety of perspectives to approach problem solving.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I love how you talk about collaboration and problem solving. And that’ll easily transition to the next question: What does innovation look like in the arts and humanities? If possible, can you provide some examples? Because arts and humanities is art, music, history, anthropology, English, literature, philosophy, so many different fields.

Dr. Grace Glass: Sure. That’s a great question. I have a lot of examples I’m really excited to talk about.

Arts and humanities has a long and storied history in higher education. But one thing we have not been very good at is, as I said in the earlier question, innovation, which to me really requires breaking down disciplinary boundaries. And so I think what I would say about arts and humanities is to innovate in our field, we need to bring in other fields, and we need to collaborate across disciplines to create new ways of thinking, and of learning, and of teaching.

Some great examples of this are we recently had our faculty and directors collaborate with faculty in the school of STEM; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics here at APUS, to create courses like Introduction to Science Fiction or The History of STEM. So offerings like those really bring to bear thinking that is grounded in the natural sciences, but is also grounded in the analytical critical tradition of arts and humanities.

We are also planning on launching a graduate certificate in what’s called design thinking. And this is sort of a very conceptual offering, a very conceptual series of courses and assessments that will teach students how to create ways of connecting with customers, with users, telling their stories, and creating products that will speak to them. And so that in particular is a truly interdisciplinary offering that will bring in thinking from business, from the art world, from design, and from IT in terms of being agile, in terms of being iterative, and constructing good products.

So really excited about things like that. I think it’s really all about, as I said, breaking open those silos, those disciplinary silos, and learning to think in ways that are hybrid and that are collaborative.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. A really wonderful response. It makes me think of, of course, what we’re going through right now with COVID-19. I’m at home, you’re at home. We’re all at home because of this.

And so higher education needs to innovate. How do you think higher education can innovate to deal with COVID-19? Because honestly, if some smaller institutions don’t, they might actually disappear.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah, I think so. It’s a sort of a sad reality in higher education today that there’s a lot of market forces and demographic pressures being brought to bear on our particular sector. We are seeing a shrinking student population. And at the same time, we’re seeing more institutions competing for those students.

So everybody has to have their eyes open to innovating and creating new opportunities. COVID-19 is changing the world. And I think it’s going to be changing the world for a very long time. Everything I read says we’re in the thick of the quarantine now.

But once we come out of it, it’s not going to be the last time that we’re quarantined because of this virus. There’s going to be waves. There’s going to be new outbreaks and we’re going to need to be prepared to all go back home, stay in our homes, and do things remotely, and do things virtually.

And as you and I both know, Bjorn, virtual learning is not only the way of the future, but it is the wave of right now. It’s what’s enabling us to continue reaching our students through this pandemic. And there are a lot of institutions out there who sort of had to scramble to put their traditional brick-and-mortar offerings online.

And I don’t think that they’re really doing a really great job in general, just because as you and I both know, Bjorn, online learning is so much more than just lecturing virtually. It’s creating very structured courses and assessments that are designed to be delivered in a distance learning format.

And there’s many complexities to delivering education at a distance that really don’t exist in a face-to-face classroom. And higher education as a whole, I think is going to have to grapple with this, and come to see that while yes, we can borrow a lot of really good practices from our face-to-face learning environments, we also have to step into a different world and look at how is learning delivered most effectively online.

And COVID-19 is going to push us to that place where we have to learn how to do that. All of us have to learn how to do that. Not just universities that have always been online, like APUS.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And it is. COVID-19 is a game changer. And when you read the articles, there’s articles that say higher education is destroyed, doom and gloom, or ways in which higher education is going to change.

But come the fall, of course, we’re in the middle of 2020 here, COVID-19 is going to be more than just, there’s no football games or there’s football games with no audience members. Everything’s going to change. And so now you went to Smith, correct?

Dr. Grace Glass: I did. Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When people go to Smith in the fall, it’s going to be more than just people going back to school. Things will have to change.

And so when you talk about schools like Smith, excellent school, how will colleges adjust? And so, like you said, the complexity is putting instruction online is more than just a Zoom call. Because then students, if they get that, will question how much they’re paying honestly.

Dr. Grace Glass: We see that happening now. We see a lot of students online on Twitter, on Reddit expressing their frustration, expressing their unhappiness, foreseeing actual lawsuits being brought. So yes, it is a very real concern.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And what I think of my own experience with music, distance learning is very difficult with music. Distance learning is very difficult, especially at what I’ll describe as more elite institutions, where part of the experience is going there and being part of that network.

So now here at APUS, we’re very lucky. We’re 100% online. And we’ve been doing this for three decades. For a long time. So we’ve figured out, I guess you could say, how to deliver content online in an excellent way with excellent faculty. Now, what would you say schools like Smith could do to better prepare for the future and for risk mitigation of a future pandemic, which will happen?

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah. I think there are a lot of things that these traditional institutions need to engage in. First and foremost is upskilling the faculty. Training them in the technologies that they will need to use. Learning management systems, student information systems, podcasting systems like the system we’re using right now, and all of the things that make distance learning possible.

They’re also going to have to — if they haven’t already — really get into the field of instructional design. Because instructional design is a tool that enables us to construct learning experiences that work virtually. And whether that’s hiring people who actually have the degrees in instructional design, which I think is a good idea, or upskilling their own faculty in that discipline. I think that’s going to be critical.

There may also be just very concrete things like should they be putting students in dorms with roommates anymore, which is such a key part of the whole experience of a small liberal arts institution like that. And I know I certainly learned a lot from it outside of the classroom.

But in this new world where we have viruses, like COVID, it’s hard to say whether that’s a good idea or not. So those types of larger questions will also have to be thought through.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It does. And of course I’m not a scientist, but I could see some sort of a pandemic really hitting once every 10 years. In the past, SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu didn’t make it to the U.S., but they impacted Asia pretty heavily. So with COVID, it reached everywhere. So honestly, part of the innovation of higher education is risk mitigation for when the next time this happens. And moving classes online really is without sounding dramatic, kind of the only answer.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah, it really is. Right now, the only thing that we have to concretely combat the virus is the social distancing practice. And if you’re going to practice social distancing, you can’t be in classrooms, you can’t be in dorms. So it does have to happen at a distance.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Why is it important to have an understanding of the innovation process as a leader in higher education?

Dr. Grace Glass: It’s absolutely critical. And I go back to that old saying “innovate or die” basically.

And I think we’re really in a situation in higher education where that’s true. Our students are savvier than ever. They are savvy consumers. They are very aware of the resources and the debt that they will need to invest to avail themselves of a higher education. And they expect top quality for their money. And they expect that we will provide them with learning, with skills that will give them the ability to jump into rewarding careers.

And that’s a tall order for higher education as it’s traditionally practiced. Because for so many decades higher education was, the idea was you go and get a higher education for the experience itself. Like it’s intrinsically valuable. You do it to grow as a person.

And that’s still true. I mean, that’s absolutely true. But the cost of higher education has risen so astronomically, and there have been so many new institutions entering the space that students also want practical value for their money.

And we won’t be able to deliver that without innovating. Because industry and the employment markets that these students are entering are innovating themselves. They’re constantly changing. They’re constantly growing, expanding, moving in new directions or else they’re not surviving. And so it’s incumbent upon higher education to collaborate with industry with employers and with all kinds of people who can give us advice as to how to stretch our boundaries so that we can deliver what our students are expecting.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And what you said about students being savvy consumers is so true. Higher education is cool, and it’s a transformational process. But students have a lot of choice, so they don’t have to just go to their local community college. They don’t have to just go to the local four-year public. They can come to APUS, which is all around the country.

Now, as a follow-up question for this: what would a leader in a smaller four-year college, what would they have to innovate versus a leader in say, an online institution with, say the smaller four-year is mainly 18-to 22-year-olds, and the larger like online institution are more adults.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah. The populations, the constituencies, are very different in their needs. Now both of them, as you said, are looking for a transformational experience. They’re looking for a change in their skills. They’re looking for a change in themselves that will catapult them to that next level in their lives.

But with the 18- to 22-year-olds, you’re looking at a first job, getting a foothold in the marketplace, getting a foothold out an employer, starting the adult journey. With the adults that we serve, they’re really looking for a couple of things, I would say. I think we see a couple of different groups. We see people who are looking for that next stage in their career, that promotion. And so they’re very focused on a specific goal.

We also get a lot of people who are…I’m almost contradicting what I said in my last answer. But we also do get a lot of people, especially in the humanities and in history, who are just doing it for the love of the subject. They’ve started their careers. They’ve been successful in their careers. They’re doing good work out there in the marketplace.

But they always had this love for a humanity subject that they never really got to explore in depth, because they were so focused when they were 18 or 22 on a business major to get the right job. So we do see a lot of people coming to us, as I said, especially in the humanities, and history, and philosophy who just want to explore that interest for the pure love of the subject.

And I think we have to keep them in mind too. They’re a smaller constituency, but I think we have to also deliver content that’s going to speak to them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I love how you said that. If I could, I would probably get a master’s in history for the love of history because it’s so good. And I love how you talked about the different age groups, because when you’re younger, you really do go for the transformational experience of somewhat discovering yourself. Who am I? What are my likes, where am I going? What will my first job be? So many hopes, so much optimism, which is a good thing.

But then when you have more adult students, they’ve had their careers; they’ve potentially had a family. And so getting those degrees and those opportunities are a little more pragmatic. And so their path is pretty straightforward. Or like you said, sometimes they’re getting degrees for the love of it, such as the AMU in humanities we have here at APUS.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: A very popular degree, because it really helps people find out about themselves and the human experience. And I like how you talked about the certificate in design..Is it design thinking?

Dr. Grace Glass: Design thinking. Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Design thinking, which is I think design theory, which is absolutely wonderful. Because innovation truly only happens when you bring a bunch of disrupt people together, and they all put their ideas together to create something new. Rarely does innovation come from one person in a cave, having that Eureka moment, and doing it all themselves.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah. It really is about that diversity of perspectives and diversity of thought.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. It makes me think about the way in which people develop as musicians. It’s not that they just go to a practice room for 15 years, and then they come out perfect, innovative, they’re writing new music. It’s going to the practice for years, and constantly performing with other people, practicing with other people, sharing with other people. And it’s only after all those years of hardship and being open to new experiences do you then essentially become innovative.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And this really brings me to the last question is what are some additional thoughts and ideas, and things we could do to deal with COVID-19 through innovation?

Dr. Grace Glass: Well, I have been thinking a lot about APUS is already fully online. And so we’re very used to working remotely. What we’re not used to is so many students and so many faculty dealing with very difficult life situations, whether they are ill, whether someone in their family is ill, whether they don’t have childcare because daycares had to close, their schools had to close.

And I almost think that there’s a bit of a silver lining in this in that it has taught us as leaders and as faculty to be more empathetic to people’s circumstances, to increase the amount of flexibility we offer, to have less of a focus on rules. I’m thinking in particular of a rule that we’ve always stuck to, that if a student wants an extension in a class, they have to have 50% of the work done.

Well, we’ve really looked at relaxing that rule during this pandemic. Because this is an unprecedented circumstance. And if we aren’t empathetic and flexible with the people that we serve, then they won’t be successful and we won’t be successful. Because their success is our success.

And so I think it’s actually teaching us some things that we need to learn. And I think it’s teaching us more about our capabilities in terms of stretching the boundaries of traditional classroom experiences, whether that be deadlines or number of papers or whatever. And it’s also teaching us that we have the capacity to support our students in ways that we possibly didn’t think of before.

So we’ve been talking a lot about how traditional institutions need to innovate to address the pandemic. But I think less traditional institutions like ours are innovating too. And we’re innovating in ways that I think aren’t going to be limited to pandemics or outbreaks. I think we’re innovating in ways that are going to serve us in the long run. So I think in that way, we’ve made a little bit of lemonade out of all these lemons that have dropped in our lap.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. No, I completely agree. One of the things it makes me think about is when I got my MBA, one of the things they talked about, but not that much was a good way to be successful in business is to ensure that your customers have a good experience.

And in higher education, it’s always remembering that we’re educating people. And online it’s tough sometimes, because everything’s over the computer. But really focusing on that individual and their needs, and what they want and where they’re going is such an important aspect of education. And especially online.

And even when I was going to school in the classroom, it’s amazing how faculty would get so overwhelmed with the multiple classes they have, that they sometimes would forget about you as a student. And so offering that personalized experience, people get that a lot of lip service, but then it doesn’t happen. And then people become, I guess you can say disgruntled. And I think after COVID-19 has come and gone, people and students will reward institutions and companies that they know treated them well during COVID-19, which means they treated them like humans.

Dr. Grace Glass: Yeah, I think so. It is a hard thing to do for faculty, recognizing and really understanding the complexity of the circumstances an individual student might find him or herself in, is very complicated. And it’s a lot of mental and emotional load on the faculty member. And so, I think we do see people not being able to do it fully. But it’s something that we should strive for, I think, continue to strive for.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think that’s great. And we should strive for it no matter what. And so well, I’d like to thank you, Dr. Glass, for being here and talking about innovation. Any final thoughts before we’re done?

Dr. Grace Glass: No, thank you very much. It was great to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And again, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today here at The Everyday Scholar, we were talking to Dr. Grace Glass, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System about innovation.

About the Speakers

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Grace Glass has a B.A. in English literature from Smith College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She began her career teaching high school English and transitioned into higher education after finishing her doctorate. She has served as Dean of Arts and Humanities at American Public University since 2015. Before APU, she served as a department chair and an Associate Dean.

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