Small in Size, Big on Innovation

Small colleges and universities produce as many -- or even more -- leading-edge ideas and programs as their larger counterparts. Campus technology leaders need to play a vital role in driving innovation at smaller institutions, Josh Kim writes. 

April 19, 2017

The conventional wisdom is that higher ed innovation comes primarily from an institution with a large reach and a charismatic leader. Think Arizona State University and Michael Crow, Southern New Hampshire University and Paul LeBlanc, The University of Michigan and Mark Schlissel.

While it is true that the scale, ambition and leadership at schools like ASU, SNHU abd Michigan move the higher ed needle, it is equally true that big innovations can emerge from small institutions. In fact, I’d argue that small colleges and universities -- and in particular liberal arts schools -- have the opportunity to lead postsecondary innovation in the 21st century.  

Innovation in learning, reducing costs and producing better student outcomes (from time to graduation to long-term economic options) often start out as small projects. Small schools can pilot innovative practices in ways that are difficult for larger institutions because they can move more quickly and change tactics with greater agility.  

In the future, higher ed innovation will come as much from small liberal arts colleges and universities as it does the largest institutions. Here are three ways that small schools can lead. especially in terms of technology:

1. Focus. The big advantage that a small college or university has in advancing higher education is its focus on core areas of strength. A small school will never be able to compete with the breadth of resources, roles and reach of a big institution, but it can make clear choices about which areas should receive attention and investment.

Campus edtech leaders on smaller campuses should align technology resources with the areas of focus. Technology is a force multiplier for innovation. Narrowly applying new learning technologies and practices -- be they blended, online, low-residency education, analytics or advanced instructional design -- can drive large-scale improvements in targeted areas.  

2. Differentiation. This is the result of focus. Small schools can’t innovate in every area, so they need to choose carefully. Ideally, their focus choices should result in a postsecondary offering that is unique.

Understanding an institution's differentiating strengths requires a clear view of the larger postsecondary ecosystem, the ability to look ahead to the future needs of students and other stakeholders and a deep knowledge of your institution's assets.  

Campus technology leaders should have this knowledge, and then deliver and make good on a plan that takes advantage of the school's comparative advantage so it can differentiate itself. All of us working in technology at small schools need to find a way to devote most of our time, resources and attention to drive institutional differentiation while moving away from treating traditional higher ed technology operations as a commodity.

3. Culture. A strength of many small schools, particularly liberal arts ones, is the presence of a unified and integrated campus culture. It is easier to get most people on the small school campus to buy into a set of aligned goals, norms, beliefs and practices than it is to at a far-flung, heterogeneous institution.

Placing innovation at the center of an institutional culture should be easier on a campus where most everyone shares a common vision and a core set of values. This culture may include the belief that learning and research are inextricably linked, and that the best education happens when research-productive faculty (that is, those writing books) have the opportunity to get to know and mentor their students. At some schools, this culture may be centered around a commitment to experiential learning and creating opportunities for all learners.  

No matter the core shared beliefs and values of the campus community, innovation is needed to better deliver on a commitment. to innovation. A vibrant, healthy higher ed culture needs to move forward -- to change and experiment and adapt.  

An atmosphere of trust and mutual support, one engendered by a healthy culture, is necessary for innovation to thrive because innovation will inevitably foster setbacks and failures. The strong culture at many small schools allows them to remain resilient in the face of failure -- and able to invent new ways of doing things in classrooms and labs and on campuses.

Campus technology organizations must embody the culture of their institutions. This is a challenge in the technology world, which is too often risk-adverse, hierarchical and opaque. Only if the operations of the campus computing units match the larger ethos of the institution -- particularly around transparency and intellectual bravery -- will technology drive institutional innovation.

If you are a technology professional interested in helping invent what should come next in higher ed, then the best place to build your career is at a small liberal arts school.

How do you think about higher ed innovation at your small college or university?

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Joshua Kim

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