​Higher Ed Innovators Maze: Where to Go, How to Start, How to Get There

Digital Learning

​Higher Ed Innovators Maze: Where to Go, How to Start, How to Get There

By Terah Crews and Lauren Dibble     Dec 31, 2017

​Higher Ed Innovators Maze: Where to Go, How to Start, How to Get There

The term “innovation” conjures up all sorts of high tech-centered dreams worthy of an Elon Musk keynote. “Higher education innovation” is no different, though instead of flying cars and Mars colonies, what likely comes to mind first are online and competency-based learning platforms, learning management systems, or electronic whiteboards.

Few places is this more true than EDUCAUSE’s Annual Conference, one of the largest gatherings of higher education and technology leaders. At the event, questions about how schools approach innovation can be heard on every stage and in every hallway: How do institutions think about innovation? How do they manage it? What promising practices do they employ?

Anyone who attends this event likely knows that these sorts of questions don’t stop when conference hours wind down, and often make their way into local bars and eateries. That happened this year at a dinner co-hosted by Davidson College’s chief information officer, Raechelle Clemmons, where members of higher education consulting firm Entangled Solutions met with leaders of different institutions to get their take on today’s most pressing innovation issues and trends. The room included leaders from a community college, a large online provider, an Ivy League school, a public university, a state system, a multibillion dollar foundation, and three liberal arts colleges.

Here are some highlights from the off-agenda event:

1. Higher ed innovation is not just technology.

Powerful new tools are reshaping the way we understand and approach education, but ultimately higher education’s mission is still the same: educate, inspire and empower a new generation to succeed—not just in the classroom or on the way to graduation, but in employment and as contributors to society overall. If we truly want to transform higher education and provide more students with better outcomes and brighter futures, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal. But we can’t forget that programs and people are just as important as the tech. We need to think of implementing tech as a design exercise. New tech is supported by new or modified programs and intentional change management plans to create an amplifying effect.

2. Culture eats strategy.

Building a truly innovative institution requires careful cultivation and nurturing of that type of culture. It is not enough to have a handful of innovative leaders at the top. We need university-wide cultures that embrace experimentation and failure the same way we embrace experimentation in the lab. To do that, innovative leaders, particularly faculty, need to take their messages to the academic community and start an open dialogue about the pressures facing our institutions and how to respond. We need clear, transparent, efficient, and accessible systems to engage more people in research and development (R&D) for the future of higher ed.

3. There are two approaches to innovation: stop-gap and future-proof.

The “Stop-Gap” approach: Stop-gapping is the reactive strategy of innovating to address institutional challenges as they arise. The most common example of this often occurs when an institution is faced with enrollment declines. The enrollment decline creates a financial stress and forces the institution to develop a fix or stop-gap to address the need. Institutions create all sorts of solutions in this scenario, from implementing new technology to improve efficiency, to developing new revenue streams, to merging with or being acquired by another school.

Stop-gapping is by far the most common “innovation” in higher education. When a new challenge arises or an existing challenge becomes too great, institutions mobilize resources to develop solutions. It is not surprising that this approach is what many institutions turn to: Given that higher education is noted for its silos, it often takes an acute problem to unify a campus to reach beyond those silos.

The “Future-Proof” approach: Future-proofing is the proactive strategy of predicting future need and innovating to limit the effect of future shock or stress. An example of this is the ASU Enterprise Partners, a private, nonprofit partner to ASU that holds the university’s foundation and tech transfer operations. ASU Enterprise Partners was not developed out of an immediate problem. Rather, it was structured with an eye towards future needs of the university, such as the redevelopment of the Thunderbird campus announced this week.

Future-proofing is the exception and not the rule in higher education. However, a small number of institutions are leading the way in advocating for this approach. That’s not to say that these schools are not reacting to situations or crises as they arise—they are. But they are also actively investing in and experimenting with ways to strengthen the institution to prevent future crises and get ahead of socio-economic and employment trends. To that end, a future-proofing (or proactive) approach to innovation is not an alternative to stop-gapping—it is what institutions do in addition to the necessary changes or reactionary moves they must make.

So, why doesn’t every institution practice future-proofing? It’s hard to experiment in the absence of an immediate need, and it is hard to convince campus community members that they should innovate without a clear sense of urgency. In the absence of crisis-related urgency, a clear and consistent rationale for innovation must exist, and it must be directly tied to the institution’s strategic goals and initiatives. Effective processes and trust building are also critical to creating a shared purpose for innovation.

Future proofing also requires more initial investment, which presents a financial risk. But if done right and with an experienced internal team or external advisors, this approach can help institutions get ahead of changing trends or circumstances and strategically position their offerings for strength well into the future.

Whether an institution is being reactive or proactive, changing culture or building technology, a good innovation strategy has to be intentional and rooted in the mission and vision of the institution. Higher education may be slow to evolve, but institutions are engines of change for our students, societies and economies. Innovation, to that end, is at the core of higher education already. For those engaged in innovation work, our biggest challenge is not so much to create innovative institutions, it is to redirect existing innovation energy to transforming institutions themselves. Having an effective and clear innovation strategy is a defining characteristic for those institutions that succeed in this endeavor.

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