Saturday, 3 November 2012

Innovation vs. Transformation at YorkU's Change Academy

Behind the mighty closed doors of York University’s faculty and administration exists groups of professional adults attempting to understand what university students actually do. The results are, predictably, hilariously out of touch with the realities of young people everywhere as I’ve come to learn over time and through many interactions with university professionals. My double-edged perspective as both student and staff allows me to mediate and close the dark chasm between a rigid university and its tuition-paying disciples, but sometimes that gap in communication looks more like the Grand Canyon of dead space with mindlessly bewildered staff on one end and hopelessly lost students on the other. 

I came into the Change Academy a skeptical martyr who had been caught floating in a directionless vacuum of student/staff relations before and was expecting the two day conference to morph into another never-ending cheerleading session for York. Instead, I was thrown into a team that not only acknowledged its limitations but shared my frustrations of operating in a system that prevented institutional transformation. Once I realised we were on the same page, I started to open up a little, and in turn learned substantially.

Let’s back track a titch here. Last summer, I was offered a spot to attend an invite-only conference at York University entitled the ‘Change Academy’. While I was not given any depth or context to the event, I willingly obliged thinking that it was, if anything, another opportunity to network amongst skilled professionals (and enjoy two days of free catered meals). The project team that asked me to be a part of this process is designing a ‘Virtual Learning Commons’; a set of online learning modules freely accessible to all students and staff and geared for helping students easily access information on foundational learning skills for success. I was familiar with this group through my work, and, honestly, because they were paying me to go....I went.

That said, my expectations amounted to what happens after Stephen Harper promises to keep Millennium Development Goals. What I found immediately entertaining, though, was my position as the only student in a team of seven project leaders and the opportunity to disrupt the process to add a little student-based criticism. While the idea of a Virtual Learning Commons is highly innovative (or at least innovative enough to be chosen for a summit of ‘York’s most transformative projects’), it is only as effective as its ability to be adopted into the university community. My job at the Change Academy, because I believe in VLC, was to find the best way of doing so and communicate that to the people in charge.

Perhaps less expected was the outright transparency my team had when discussing their struggles and inter-organizational issues. I had, like never before, become witness to the problems and stresses of university staff who are driving change. Their tensions fascinated me and substantially added to my doubled-pronged approach when helping students as both a student leader and staff member. There is always more than one side of change, and if I am to grow in my position for as long as I may be here I have to start paying more attention to what happens behind the surface or Canada’s second largest (and lowest ranking) university. There’s nowhere to go but up.

 Safe Travels,

Aaron Turpin

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