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Essay on the need to focus higher ed reforms on the right goals, not just quick change

So many exciting and innovative efforts are under way to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. Since joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation a year ago, I’ve spent considerable time talking to college presidents, chancellors, faculty members, grantees, and other partners. We continually learn from higher education leaders and use what they tell us to assess how we can support their creative and inspiring efforts.

Their commitment to innovation is real and exciting. However, I’m also finding that some institutions are chasing innovation without exactly knowing why they are doing it, leading to a very clear rumbling of what I call "innovation exhaustion."

I encountered this at the Education Writers Association (EWA) national seminar, held recently at Stanford University. From reporters to college officials, everyone is after the next big thing, whether it’s MOOCs (massive open online courses), online education, ed-tech startups, competency-based courses or e-portfolios. But to what end?

At the EWA event, speakers said that in the swirl of innovation, some parts of the higher education community have lost sight of the purpose of innovation. The purpose of innovation, it was repeatedly stated, is to achieve more affordable and better education pathways so that more young adults are able to move into sustaining careers. I could not agree more.

Why are so many coming down with an acute case of innovation exhaustion? For the presidents and chancellors I’ve met with, their innovation exhaustion comes out in an obvious and growing frustration with MOOCs. For them, MOOCs are a perfect storm of hype, hyperbole, and hysteria – and yet many have plunged headlong into them without a real clear sense of why or how MOOCs can help more students succeed. And that is what I see as the primary problem with innovation in higher education.

Everybody seems to be chasing something, but very few people actually know what or why, or what they’d do if they ever caught it.

For example, governors and policymakers are gushing over MOOCs because they see them as an opportunity to drive down costs. They believe MOOCs will enable institutions to deliver education to more people, more cheaply, even though we are far from knowing whether MOOCs are a viable thing or are just a passing fad. The Gates Foundation has invested in MOOCs to help determine if they have the potential to help more students earn the degrees they seek while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

Trustees and board members also are pushing college presidents to innovate because they don’t want their colleges and universities left behind. I call this "me too"-ism, where innovation itself becomes the goal without a clear and compelling strategic purpose.

As these pressures build from above, demands are also percolating up, as faculty are beginning to dig in and ask hard questions which press on academic freedom. (Why shouldn’t a professor from one university be able to offer instruction to students around the world? Why shouldn’t accredited academic institutions be permitted to bestow credit on students who take such courses and pass them the way we do all the time with transferred community college and Advanced Placement credits?)

It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step. We’ve jumped right into the "chase" without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.

I haven’t heard many people talking about innovation in these terms. During a time of tight budgets and scarce resources, policymakers in particular are right to take on controlling costs and increasing efficiency. And they’re trying to do it through technology and innovation. But I believe they’re missing something important.

States and policymakers should be looking for ways to use innovation to drive up the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity (its ability to provide more students with credentials that lead to sustaining careers). In fact, there are many who believe that focusing only on driving down costs could break the very systems that we have spent generations, and billions of taxpayer dollars, creating. Worse, no one wants to cheapen education by diminishing its value to students.

Those of us invested in higher education’s future need to align this enthusiasm for innovation with clear institutional goals so that these efforts result in more students earning the degrees and credentials they need to be successful in the workplace, in society, and in life. Working carefully and deliberately, we can showcase the different reasons why innovation is being embraced and show where they can take us as a society.

As for faculty, I know that there are many in the academic ranks — maybe even a majority — who believe strongly that their mission is to uphold the public importance of higher education and to better the lives of their students. We all want that.

To this end, there are many exciting efforts under way to improve the value of a college degree while increasing the system’s productivity, often through new courseware, tools, and systems for tracking student progress. These include adaptive technologies that adjust to a student’s needs and abilities, such as learning modules that tweak the type and difficulty of their material in response to a student’s pace and skill level. I believe once faculty witness the power of these tools to keep students engaged and on track to graduate, once they see a clear purpose and strategy behind such innovations, they will embrace them.

It will not be easy or quick to get to a point where all sectors of higher education are delivering high value education to more students. But there are a number of institutions well on the way — Arizona State, Georgia State and Southern New Hampshire Universities, to name a few. We need to support and encourage these thoughtful innovators, and help them articulate what we know to be true: That innovation is a means of increasing the value of higher education and improving its impact and ability to improve student lives.

Like most Americans, we at the Gates Foundation support efforts to deliver the best educational value to as many students as possible. We envision a postsecondary system that drives social mobility and economic development for us all. I believe we can get there through strategic innovation that puts student success front and center.

Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @dan_greenstein.

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