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Can Old Style Universities become Hotbeds of Transformation?

…the challenge on traditional public university campuses is whether they can innovate through the challenges of governance, broad mission, policy, and shrinking public funds.


Consider this dilemma. Most of the mind-blowing conversations and experiments on reinventing universities are not happening where the students who most need new affordable models are attending school. There are amazing exceptions, just spend time at Arizona State University, Western Governors University, SUNY’s Empire State College or community colleges like Rio Salado or La Guardia. And as these grow nationally at double-digit rates you might worry less about innovation capacity everywhere else. (Of course, like me, you are probably hoping that we don’t move to a college monopoly world like the airlines, where five or six Pac-man brands rule the world.)

In the long meantime, however, the challenge on traditional public university campuses is whether they can innovate through the challenges of governance, broad mission, policy, and shrinking public funds. Put another way, increased focus on the need for change has not yet produced enough actionable guidance on how public institutions can make major adjustments to their academic models.

janblogTraditional Model Redesign Convening participants worked within their university teams to produce prototypes of their redesigned models.

The Education Design Lab has been working on this question for the past year with Lumina Foundation and HCM Strategists. Our best learning yet came from a design convening in December with 10 growth-oriented public universities who raised their hands to prototype new designs that could target dramatic growth of students of color and students of high need with no increase in tuition.

First, it has to be said, that most of the 50 individual university administrators who came together to design were very interested in innovation. The frustration was how to build the new plane while flying the old one. Institutional culture, initiative fatigue and startup funds were cited as the biggest barriers, not faculty or accreditors.

Early adopter large public institutions like ASU and the members of the University Innovation Alliance have formed learning cohorts around the hot topics of the innovation circuit, with data analytics being the most alluring. In our convening, we learned that many campuses do not have access to the innovation conversations of the powerhouse research universities. They also don’t have time to think big as their staffs become more stretched. Some have heard about big ideas like competency-based education, credit for prior learning, and guided pathway models. But to get from here to there, the phrase “break it down” seems to sum up best the strategy to facilitate a large scale redesign process on traditional campuses. Here are a few early tools and design concepts that we see “intrapreneurs” on campus responding to:

  1. Narrow your focus. Tom Bailey and colleagues make the point in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges that the latter 20th century allowed public institutions, not only community colleges, to become cafeterias offering as many degrees and courses as the public might desire. The teams at our convening seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to sharpen their own value propositions to consider a more streamlined set of offerings in a rapidly changing, “unbundled” world, particularly in regions where demographics are changing. (See blog by Nancie Ruder, the university branding expert at our convening.)
  2. Get educated on the trends and tools that support your goals. We provided university teams with coaches, but also what we called “building block” experts on six key areas of “learning environment” innovation. For tools, we used the Lab’s prototyping process and experts in three other key strategy areas. All of these seemed “on point,” based on survey feedback, with where traditional universities need and want targeted innovation support: branding, financial modeling, change management, as well as specific design help to customize big ideas to their environments.
janblogLeft: The Lab’s Don Fraser walks his team through the prototyping process.
Right: A Convening participant visualizes how his university might change with the new prototype.
  1. Create safe, intentional space for testing. This decade, and perhaps the next, will be such a time of disruption for the traditional university model that we can’t really wait for academic years of research to provide a comfort level of best practice. There is an evidence base in online learning, guided pathway models, student engagement and retention strategies. Universities want the comfort of proven models, but we see the potential for discomfort to be mitigated and maybe even embraced in a structured and disciplined rapid prototyping process.
  2. Make multiple small bets. Make them quickly, and be very clear about how you will evaluate them. This is really about crafting a transparent process university-wide to identify which ideas, which types of innovation, make it into a rapid prototyping environment, supporting them, learning from the successes and the failures.
  3. Visualize your story, and be very strategic and intentional about telling it. Participants in our convening responded to this process. We showed an example that Paul LeBlanc from Southern New Hampshire University provided us on how he thinks about storytelling (which he believes has been fundamental to his innovation success.)

Narrow your focus. Get educated on the trends and tools that support your goals. Create safe, intentional space for testing. Make multiple small bets. Visualize your story.

At our convening in December, we only had time to work through #1 and #2 and a bit of #5 above. But we are anxiously testing these concepts with multiple partners. The urgency for this work really comes back to our opening dilemma and the time horizon of a newly competitive environment. Which will happen first? Will students and working adults gravitate to the growth engines like ASU and even course-level knowledge purveyors like Coursera and EdX, or will intrapreneurship blossom at lots of traditional universities who will figure out how to narrow and sharpen their value propositions.

This particular experiment is pushing on the questions of willingness, pace, capacity, opportunities and challenges for transformation at traditional universities, in the belief that out at the higher ed innovation divide, well-meaning disruptors and intra-preneurs (who are mostly not talking to each other) can build many bridges to serve more students of high need.


-Kathleen deLaski