Faculty from Florida Memorial University moved from big problems facing their students and their university to tangible solutions in two days’ time.

 

Increased financial pressures and declining enrollment are forcing small private colleges to adapt. For many, a curriculum redesign is the way forward

Florida Memorial University (FMU) is facing many of the same pressures as other colleges and universities across the country—they’re working to tackle mounting pressures and adjust to a changing landscape. With roots tracing back to 1879, Florida Memorial University (FMU) is the only historically Black university in South Florida, serving an undergraduate population of 1,500. From March 2017 to March 2018, Black unemployment averaged 7.4% compared to 3.7% average for white Americans. In response to these lopsided unemployment rates, the Lab has partnered with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to design and strengthen career pathways for 14 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as part of UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative (CPI). In preparing for the upcoming academic year, Florida Memorial wanted to create a space where faculty could reimagine their curriculum for today’s learner and workforce. FMU faculty asked themselves, “How might we meet today’s education-to-career challenges while remaining true to who we are and what we offer?”

Enter FMU’s Faculty Institute, an annual two-day convening focused on professional development—and, with the Lab’s help, a sprint towards curriculum redesign. Here’s how we got it done.

 

We Need to Be Doing Things Differently

We introduced Florida Memorial’s faculty to frameworks and tools—namely, growth mindset and human-centered design methods—to help them tackle the weight of a curriculum overhaul. We began by providing the faculty with a few data points (read: 10 highest- and lowest-earning majors for African-Americans; Gallup’s report on school-to-work outcomes for minorities). We aimed to push them to look at the greater landscape, including outcomes for African-American students, who comprise 72% of FMU’s undergraduate student population. We used data to ask: How are your offerings preparing students to go out into the world to be successful? 

The data pointed to opportunities for students to explore skill development and career exploration, and highlighted the need for building social capital. Very quickly, a realization clicked for folks: “Oh, we need to be doing things differently.” As education designers, that’s what we want. Providing the big picture—we do this with our partners via a gallery walk of data and statements related to their learner population—helped framed specific challenges to spark ideas.

 

Capturing Faculty Ideas + Common Themes

To capture “a-ha” moments and the ideas that those moments generated, we developed a new tool named an Idea Capture that we piloted for the first time with Florida Memorial (note: the best tool names are the most obvious). Every faculty member took a moment to write down one idea to infuse into FMU’s curriculum (cue the sticky notes). The prompt? “Think about something that helps address an issue that you heard earlier.” Each faculty idea was then shared with two colleagues for feedback. Based on feedback received, faculty iterated and furthered their concepts. Thirty minutes later, faculty had more than 50 ideas in-hand.

 

The Idea Capture starts with one person’s idea to a big problem. Step two: share your idea with two colleagues for feedback. Step three: iterate. Step four: affinity map.

 

To narrow in on the faculties’ ideas, we affinity-mapped them to find common ground. Affinity mapping allows us to identify patterns across multiple layers of thought generation. We started by collecting all 50 ideas and then worked to sort them based on commonalities. For example, the common theme between “developing networks among alumni and partners” and “establish role models for networking”? Social capital. (Pro tip: set up a “parking lot” for ideas/notes that fall into their own category.) 

First, we identified core needs: students need social capital and access to networks beyond college, career exploration and development should be embedded in academic activities, 21st century skills should be explicit to students before they apply for jobs, and curricula should be made more accessible. (Note: these core student needs are often common across institutions.)

Next, we identified eight core themes to inform FMU’s solutions-finding: teaching pedagogy, career exploration in the classroom, peer mentoring, real world problem-solving, classroom policy, first and second year experience, 21st century skills, and micro-credentials. These themes are indicative of Florida Memorial’s student needs in combination with data-driven programming from the greater higher ed landscape. Looking at this list, we then asked FMU’s faculty, “How do you hardwire these into your curriculum so that every student gets to benefit?” Affinity mapping provided a litmus test for faculty to identify where they had the most energy to innovate.

 

An overview of our two-day curriculum redesign sprint.

 

 

Harnessing Innovation-Ready Ideas

Using the eight themes as catalysts, faculty worked in small teams to develop prototypes. To guide prototype development, we often turn to our Napkin Pitch tool. Imagine writing your idea on a napkin, except that napkin is poster-sized and asks tough questions. The Napkin Pitch acts as a guide for taking a big idea and narrowing in on who it serves and how we will know that it’s working. 

In our ongoing work with UNCF’s CPI cohort (reminder: the Lab plus 14 HBCUs are working to better career outcomes for students), we developed a second iteration of the tool: adding a bring/build/buy map to help teams narrow in on how their institution might leverage existing and new resources. Addressing available resources is critical, especially for historically Black colleges and universities that have been traditionally under-resourced and underfunded. 

Over two days, Florida Memorial faculty considered resources, stakeholders, needs, benefits, and metrics for success and evaluation in imagining a redesign of their curriculum. The result? A set of prototypes vetted by faculty that have the potential to enable FMU to better adapt to the changing needs of its students while remaining grounded in its institutional values. Top solutions included developing a framework that outlines the completion of micro-credentials at each milestone for a three-year degree program and creating a Second Year Experience program that builds on the learnings and energy generated from the First Year Experience program. By the end of day two, faculty walked away with eight solutions-focused ideas to pitch to FMU. Next, the Academic Affairs leadership team will take these ideas and move through a decision-making process to determine what elements of a curriculum redesign to fund and build in the coming year.

 

Two of the eight big ideas following their respective themes. On the left: develop a framework that outlines the completion of micro-credentials at each milestone for the three-year degree program. On the right: create a Second Year Experience program that builds on the learnings and energy generated from the First Year Experience program.

 

Like so many small private schools, Florida Memorial is at a crossing point. In two days time, the path to putting today’s learner at the center of their curriculum is even clearer, bolstered by the support of faculty on how to best get there. While we did not completely solve for the challenges that FMU is facing, we did help them build a foundation for faculty engagement and collective buy-in to imagine an overhaul of their curriculum in service of improved student outcomes. This is not the end. For Florida Memorial, they’re just getting started.