How to Promote Educational Innovation

Lessons learned.

June 2, 2015

American colleges and universities have adopted a variety of strategies to promote educational innovation.

Let’s take a look at what works and what doesn’t, beginning with the strategies that haven’t proven particularly effective.

One-Off Projects
Investing in individual faculty members may produce a handful of showcase projects, but rarely do these projects alter an institution’s culture of teaching and learning. Innovators too often lose interest, retire, or move to another institution.

Seeds in a Swamp
“Let a thousand flowers bloom” may be an enticing slogan, but without strategic focus, investments in innovation rarely pay off. If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t get there.

Full Institutional Overhaul
Colleges and universities are big ships that shift directions only with great difficulty. No group of individuals can single-handedly alter a curriculum or pedagogical approach.

One Step at a Time
An incremental approach seems like a promising alternative to a full institutional overhaul. After all, this strategy holds out the possibility of achieving buy in step-by-step. In practice, however, gradualistic approaches tend to supplement existing practices rather than driving far-reaching transformations.

What, then, might a successful innovation strategy look like. It must embrace four S’s. It must be:

Strategic: It must be focused, deliberate and carefully considered. Within the University of Texas System, such a strategy has a clear objective – to drive student success – and builds on the strengths and missions of individual campuses. Our strategy is to create career-oriented, optimized degree pathways in areas of high employer and student demand and help campuses and individual departments raise enrollments and improve retention and completion rates.

Systemic: The strategy must be holistic. In the University of Texas case, it seeks to pull, simultaneously, all the levers that drive student success – including curriculum design, delivery modalities, student support services, and scheduling.  

Most successful systemic innovations adopt an “islands of disruption” approach. Rather than grafting new models of education onto incumbent systems, technologies, and processes, they reimagine the entire educational ecosystem. This islands of disruption strategy has provided the impetus behind ASU Online, University of Maryland University College, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.  

Scalable: Innovations need to be replicable or scalable if they are to be truly worthwhile. For our innovations to pay off, they must produce content, programming and technology assets that can be used widely. Also, at scale, data pools grow larger and insights grow correspondingly richer, allowing us to personalize learning pathways and produce data sets unprecedented in the history of educational research.  

Sustainable: A sustainable initiative must owned by a particular institution, whether that is a university as a whole or a college or a department. Mechanisms must be in place to ensure that the program will continue to be offered. The initiatives that the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning is funding must repay initial program development investment and be self-sustaining within a reasonable timeframe after launch.  Return on investment can be defined in a variety of ways, but the return must be genuine.

In the case of the UT System, our innovation strategy is built around a fifth “S”: Student success.

Our initiatives place students as individuals at the center of all programming and related service design and development decisions.

We work closely with campus leadership, faculty, and other subject matter experts, as well as with select industry partners, to develop learning experiences that offer high fidelity content, media-rich, highly interactive learning experiences, and highly engaging and interactive challenge- and problem-based learning activities.

All programming offers 360-degree student lifecycle management services and encourages rich contexts for peer-to-peer mentorship and knowledge and professional networks that will support students across their academic experience and throughout their careers.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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