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Driving academic innovation is a truly wicked problem. There is the motivational challenge: Convincing stakeholders that there is a pressing problem – whether it’s student completion, student engagement, learning outcomes, workforce preparation, affordability, or tapping new revenue streams and markets – that needs to be solved, without diluting the quality of an education. Then there is the bystander challenge: Whenever responsibility for solving a problem is diffuse, no one is likely to take charge.

Then, too, there is the complexity of the challenge before an institution: How to institute educational transformations that disrupt entrenched practices, incumbent processes and procedures, established roles, and legacy technologies.

Initiative fatigue, inertia, the need for buy-in from multiple participants and for resources -- these too make academic innovation a wicked problem.

Yet given the right circumstances and incentives, academic innovation is certainly possible.

Incentives are, of course, a key. We generally think about incentives in terms of money and release time. These are essential, but rarely sufficient. Equally important is the desire to emulate pacesetters or assume a leadership role or cultivate a reputation as an innovator.

A successful innovation strategy must, in short, address issues of motivation, leadership, strategic vision, institutional practice, organizational culture, project management, and sustainability. And it must do so across multiple domains all at once.

Ironically, one of the chief obstacles to academic innovation can be the lone innovator with a pet personal project. Such boutique projects are rarely scalable or replicable. The fact is that innovations with enduring impact demand collective action.

Another major obstacle resides in a lack of strategic focus. At any campus, ideas for innovation abound. Dispersing resources can make many individuals happy, but many of these proposals hold out no prospect for broad impact. To focus on such projects is, as my colleague Marni Baker Stein says, to plant seeds in a swamp.

Within the University of Texas System, the Institute for Transformational Learning has learned a great deal about the challenges to innovation, and the opportunities. There must, first of all, be a sense of urgency or opportunity – and also a sense of agency. Stakeholders must have a clear understanding of why innovation is necessary and desirable – and also feel a sense of ownership of the process.

Thus we have discovered that participation in the entire program design process, from ideation, market research, and concepting through blueprinting, development, implementation, testing, and improvement, is essential in producing this sense of ownership. A key is to convince stakeholders of the value of design thinking and to engage them in this process in partnership with a skilled and knowledgeable learning architect. This very process is crucial in contributing to a shift in mindset about the nature of teaching and learning.

Especially important, we have found, is active involvement of faculty in constructing the knowledge grid or scaffold that disaggregates existing degree pathways into discrete concepts, skills, and assessable learning outcomes. The graph, which sketches out hundreds of outcomes across multiple levels of competency, serves as a master blueprint that can support multiple pathways, including stand-alone modules, micro-certificates, stackable credentials, and degrees. There is nothing quite like participation in the design process to produce a sense of camaraderie, mission, and intellectual engagement.

That is not to say that individual faculty members must take full responsibility for the nuts and bolts of drawing the knowledge grid themselves. In our process, that is the responsibility of curriculum architects, who translate into subject matter experts’ insights into compelling visualizations and roadmaps. Ditto for curating and creating content, which is the responsibility of instructional designers, media developers, and assessment specialists.

At the same time, campus faculty and student and academic affairs leaders plan all aspects of the new pathways from the optimal delivery modality to academic operations and supporting technologies and services in close consultation with our student lifecycle management experts.

Any innovation that will have genuine impact must take place across multiple dimensions of transformation. It requires the reengineering of institutional practices, processes, policies, and infrastructure, as well as shifts in organizational culture and mindsets. All participating stakeholders must buy into the change agenda and feel confident in their ability to implement the necessary changes in systems, processes, and behavior. 

Regular communication and consultation are essential to insure a continuing commitment to the innovation process. But the most important element involves embracing design thinking and serving as a learning architect oneself.

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.


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