Collaboration as Disruption

by Jessica Riddell

From the outset, the Maple League has had a bold vision. At very heart of this endeavour lies the possibility of disruption. One of the new buzzwords in higher education is “disruption,” often framed as disruptive technologies, disruptive Artificial Intelligence (AI), or disruptive digitization in its many forms (e.g. digital humanities). But the real disruption is not in the tools (tools change and we often adapt without changing deep structures) but rather in changing the rules. The Maple League changes the rules of the game by asking universities to collaborate when they’ve been hardwired to compete.

Universities compete when they recruit prospective students, in external funding, amongst one another in athletics, and in capital campaigns and annual funds. Students compete for grades, academics compete for grants, and departments compete for resources. The Maple League is a consortium of universities that asks all our stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, leaders, alumni – to re-wire our mindsets in order to think carefully and critically about how collaboration makes us all better than the sum of our individual parts. Collaboration in the sphere of higher education is nothing short of radical – and I believe it is exactly what we need to disrupt the Canadian landscape of higher education in order to build 21st century citizens who can think carefully, critically – and collaboratively! – about the world around them.

Disruption does not occur without dissonance: the more disruptive the idea, the higher likelihood of significant disturbance. If we deploy the influential theory of threshold concepts in transformative learning, we can understand collaboration as a threshold concept in how we understand post-secondary institutions.

  • Collaboration has the potential to be transformative. Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which an individual views a discipline or professional field.
  • Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome and may seem, at the beginning, to be counter-intuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent
  • Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, i.e. they are difficult to unlearn (i.e. it might be hard to stop collaborating once you start)
  • Collaboration is integrative: “threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear, to the individual, to be related.”
  • Collaboration has the potential to be reconstitutive: understanding a threshold concept may entail a significant shift in learner subjectivity and selfhood (Smith).
  • Finally, in changing the rules of the game we must embrace liminality: Meyer and Land have likened the crossing of the pedagogic threshold to a ‘rite of passage’: “in short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain. (Cousin [2006])”.

The Maple League changes the rules of the game when we introduce collaboration into the conversation at our four institutions. We should acknowledge that an essential component of culture change includes messy journeys and sometimes contested conceptual terrains; but in the end, collaboration has the potential for profound transformations for learners, leaders, scholars, and institutions.

Do you have a story that highlights collaboration as disruption? What are your thoughts about the Maple League taking on this messy journey, reworking the frameworks of undergraduate learning? Share your thoughts by reaching me directly at director@mapleleague.ca

Also, to learn more about the journey and guiding principles of the Maple League, I encourage you to explore the rest of our website.

Excerpted from “Using productive disruption in higher education” University Affairs Magazine, October 1, 2018

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October 4th is a day when we honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Gender Diverse People, and look for opportunities to heal from this national tragedy. Please join us virtually on this important day to honour those we have lost and demand action so that this tragedy does not take any more Indigenous women, girls, or gender diverse people.

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