Would Public Universities Benefit From a Central Innovation Unit?

Yes, although such units are difficult to sustain.

November 26, 2017

The notion that any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered by the word “no” – a maxim known as Betteridge’s Law – is not always right. University systems can benefit greatly from a central innovation unit. Unfortunately, such units are exceptionally difficult to sustain.

In September 2012, the University of Texas System launched a central unit charged with educational innovation. The Institute for Transformational Learning, initially funded with $50 million, had an ambitious mandate: To make a UT quality education more accessible, affordable, and successful, help the campuses develop new revenue streams, and ensure that the UT System was a national leader in technology-enhanced education.

To fulfill that mandate, the ITL initiated a three-fold plan:

  • To provide the campuses with consulting, training, and capacity building services in the areas of student lifecycle services, online and hybrid program development and marketing, pedagogy, assessment, technology acquisition, and learning analytics.
  • To work with faculty to develop innovative educational models that were outcomes-focused, career-aligned, modularized, gamified, bilingual, data driven, personalized, and scalable.
  • To develop a technology infrastructure to deliver advanced simulations and interactives to students on any device, collect and display student learning and profile data in near real time, and support a universal student record able to consolidate all of a student’s skills and proficiencies regardless of where these are acquired.

The Institute worked hand in glove with two new medical schools to design state-of-the-art curricula; partnered with faculty at the UT System’s new UT Rio Grande Valley campus to create a competency-based BS in Biomedical Sciences program that reimagined the entire 120 credit hour curriculum; devised a biostatistics curriculum sharable among a variety of graduate and professional schools in the health sciences; and collaborated with the academic campuses to develop a host of innovative online programs in areas related to health, cybersecurity, and other high demand fields.

In addition, the Institute developed a mobile first, data rich user experience that could support sophisticated interactives, rich multimedia, and personalization of content, pace, and learning trajectory. It also created technologies to support a multi-institution educational marketplace, a learning relationship management system undergirded by a persistent progressive student profile, and a secure, shareable comprehensive student record.

Most ambitious of all, the ITL worked closely with the Texas Workforce Commission, university and community college systems, and business associations to imagine a state-wide credentials marketplace where Texans might acquire a wide range of marketable skills from academic and non-academic providers.

A central innovation unit serving 230,000 students across eight academic campuses and six health science centers was able to attract an extraordinary array of talent, including leading national figures in curriculum design, assessment, learning analytics, technology development, student retention services, and financial modeling, functions that most institutions must outsource. It was also able to develop close working relationships with companies like Salesforce to develop the next generation technologies that will underpin the personalized, data driven, outcomes-focused future of higher education. 

But long-standing tensions between systemness and campus autonomy make it difficult to sustain a central innovation unit especially in times of economic stringency. This was the case with an earlier Texas innovation unit, the UT TeleCampus. Indeed, it is the difficulty of sustaining innovation within the academy that has led a number of leading foundations to channel a significant portion of their grants to profit-seeking firms that will sell their products and services to colleges and universities.

I believe it is a mistake for higher education institutions to outsource core functions and responsibilities. Not only do costs tend to be high, but valuable data and learning are lost. 

For a central innovation unit to succeed, it must convince the system campuses of the value that it adds – something exceedingly difficult to do when institutions face rising costs and stagnating budgets. The unit must also achieve financial sustainability as quickly as possible. Perhaps most importantly, its strategic plan must win buy-in from every key stakeholder.

My hope is that as the ITL talent moves on to other institutions, these individuals will carry seeds that will sprout wherever they land. Among other things, the Institute witnessed the striking success of a series of ideas that I am convinced will shape the future of higher education.  

These include a coherent, synergistic “guided” curriculum in STEM fields that brought some of the nation’s most at-risk students to success. We saw dozens of faculty at multiple institutions engage in knowledge mapping activities that tightly aligned their curricula with industry-defined skills. And we demonstrated the effectiveness of strategies that deserve consideration: block scheduling, immersive, highly interactive courseware, an optimized and coherent curriculum, tiered student support including academic and non-academic coaching, bilingual content, performance-based assessment, differentiated instructional approaches, and problem-, inquiry-, and team-based learning strategies.

Over the past five years, the future of higher education has grown clearer. Traditional brick and mortar institutions will not be displaced by MOOCs, for profits, or coding academies. But our colleges and universities will change in profound ways, as these institutions place a greater emphasis on a more personalized, experiential, outcomes-focused, technology-rich, and data driven academic experience.

New curricular pathways will emerge to expedite time to degree and bring more students to success. These will include improved early college/dual degree programs, stackable credentials, structured pathways, learn and earn models (including practicums and coop models), competency-based approaches (which will include prior learning assessment), modularized courses, and military crosswalk programs and degree verticals that seamlessly connect high school, community college, military training, and four-year institutions.

Even if we can imagine the contours of higher education’s future, progress toward that vision is not inevitable. It will require a collective effort on the part of faculty, administrators, and support staff who are committed to a learner-centered conception of the university. We stand at a crossroads. We can allow profit-seeking firms to provide institutions with their tools and services, or we can take a leadership role, refining our own vision and working with companies when that makes sense.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine makes a point that well worth bearing in mind during this moment of academic transition and transformation. He declares that loss is an integral and inevitable part of the process of creating the future. Higher education is changing in fundamental ways and something will be lost as it evolves. But something will be gained that doesn’t yet exist. “Semper et deinceps” Augustine proclaims: Always forward, ever onward.

Steven Mintz, a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, served as Executive Director of the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017.

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