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Many popular critiques of higher education focus on a series of straw men: soaring costs, indifferent faculty, pointless research, rampant political correctness, administrative bloat, country club amenities, inflated grades, undermotivated, underprepared, and disengaged students, and a ratings-fueled pursuit of reputation and status.

Higher education’s real problems lie elsewhere. These include the high dropout rate and protracted time to degree; gross disparities in funding and resources;  uncertain learning and employment outcomes; and approaches to education that do not serve non-traditional students particularly well. These are among the challenges that higher education needs to solve.

For five years, I had an extraordinary opportunity: To found and direct one of the largest public university system’s efforts to improve access, affordability, and student success by leveraging new technologies and the learning sciences.

The Institute for Transformational Learning sought to address several of the challenges facing higher education:

  • Supporting students’ journey across multiple institutions.
    Most students today acquire credits from multiple institutions. Many others acquire skills and knowledge from unconventional providers, including the military. But difficulties in credit transfer and in transitioning from one institution to another lead far too many to end their education prematurely.
  • Helping students manage the tension between work, family, and school.
    Even supposedly traditional undergraduates work while going to school, while many others must balance their studies with family responsibilities. At the same time, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities – which many students find the most valuable part of their college experience and which absorb significant amounts of time and energy -- are not well integrated into their academic journey. Tackling these challenges requires a student-centric focus that places priorities on their schedules and needs. 
  • Helping to create agile, relevant learning pathways.
    Many students need windows into career options and seek more coherent curricular pathways better aligned with future careers or with marketable skills. Yet creating more synergistic pathways is among the toughest challenges higher education faces.
  • Providing better learning support across the student lifecycle.
    Many students need more scaffolding, feedback, guidance, and support than they currently receive. Among our goals was to create a community of care, a cross-functional team to take collective responsibility for improving student success, and to use data analytics to target just-in-time interventions.
  • Helping adults meet the need for lifelong learning in today’s knowledge economy.
    In the current information economy, many adults and mid-career professionals need to complete degrees, refresh their knowledge, retrain, and acquire new credentials. This provides a huge, but still largely untapped opportunity, for colleges and universities.
  • Promoting greater transparency about learning and employment outcomes.
    In addition to providing greater clarity into what students learn and how well college prepares students for the job market, we were interested in creating a competency transcript that would display the broad range of skills and proficiencies acquired in multiple contexts that could be shared with employers.

Let me share several lessons that I take away from this experience.

Lesson 1:  Having substantial resources can be a mixed blessing. There's no doubt that having substantial resources allows one to incentivize faculty and hire exceptional individuals in the areas of curriculum and instructional design, student lifecycle services, marketing, technology and software development, assessment, and analytics. But access to such resources also raises expectations, encourages some to view the initiative as an ATM, and stirs opposition from those who feel that the money would be better in their hands. But a bigger challenge is that no funds ever come free of strings. In Texas, expenditures from the Permanent University Fund (the higher education endowment) are restricted to infrastructure and cross-institutional projects and are subject to extremely rigorous procurement and contracting rules that make it extremely difficult to be nimble or agile.

Lesson 2:  Innovation requires recognition of a problem, a need, or an opportunity – but many find it difficult to recognize the challenges or opportunities before them. Some doubt that an institution’s graduation rate be substantially improved or that strategically chosen online programs can meet untapped needs and generate new revenue streams. Others see no benefits from developing a campus’ (or department’s) reputation for innovation. Yet without those beliefs, innovation is unlikely to take root. Any innovation’s benefits must, in the eyes of stakeholders, significantly outweigh any alteration in existing practices. In addition, any initiative that comes from outside an institution inevitably generates suspicion and resistance, and is highly vulnerable to a shift in leadership or priorities. Unless the initiative builds support from the grassroots, it will not prove sustainable.

Lesson 3:  It’s really hard to secure support for a strategy or to set appropriate expectations. It’s not enough to draft a strategic plan and a business models. It’s essential to get explicit sign off from leadership and key stakeholders and an appreciation of the pace of innovation in higher education. Without agreement on timelines and benchmarks, and a sufficient window of time to meet key goals, the innovation process is likely to be cut short. Leaders at diverse levels – presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs – must feel a stake in the innovation process. Without their buy-in -- articulating and selling a vision and a strategy, removing obstacles, setting priorities, endorsing an approach, and having tough talks with all involved – innovation is certain to falter. Leadership wants sprinters, not marathoners. Leaders, not surprisingly, seek quick wins. But most gains in higher education are incremental. Any sustainable strategy must couple long term goals with enough low-hanging fruit to sustain momentum.

Lesson 4:  Know how to pivot successfully. Innovation invariable takes place in a fluid, dynamic, and unstable circumstances. Institutional priorities and needs shift. Partnerships fail. New opportunities arise. Blockers, sometimes in the form of a very small number of individuals, appear. As a result, innovators must be prepared to continuously alter strategies and tactics. But pivoting successfully is not easy. Any change of course or direction can cause stakeholders to lose faith in the original strategy. But pivots can work if stakeholders understand that you are shifting partners, pursuing new opportunities, or adopting new tactics, but not your overarching goals or vision. After all, there is no one path to heaven.

Lesson 5:  Innovation is a political act. Relationship building, buy-in, and persuasion lie at the heart of the innovation process. Communication with stakeholders must be ongoing. Most important of all is active engagement with partners. Sustained innovation requires a team effort with all participants paddling in the same direction. At the UT School of Public Health, 80 faculty took part in design sessions. For UT San Antonio's Cybersecurity, over 40 faculty members were involved, plus support staff: financial aid, the Registrar, information technology, and others.

Lesson 6:  Higher education's problem is not a shortage of ideas, but an implementation challenge. Even if the evidentiary base is not as large or rigorous as we might wish, we do have a pretty good idea what works for at-risk students: a coherent, synergistic curriculum, with a clear value proposition; a hybrid approach to teaching with a robust online component; some flexibility in pace and some differentiated instruction to meet students’ diverse needs; frequent diagnostics combined with performance-based assessments; and data-driven advising supplemented by a tiered support structure including coaches, tutors, and near peer mentors. Execution and sustainability are the key challenges, especially when innovation disrupts business as usual.   

Lesson 7:  Innovation is an iterative process. It is not surprising that the institutions that have been most successful in significantly raising rates of student success and embracing innovation – Georgia State, Southern New Hampshire, and Arizona State – have had long-term leadership in place – leadership that articulated a clear, consistent vision and worked tirelessly to see it implemented. Too often, however, even highly successful initiatives, like Austin Peay’s Degree Compass, are allowed to wither after their developers and implementers move on.

What one hopes is that innovators will take what they have learned, and plant seeds of innovation in new environments.

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