To Get Buy-In for New Ideas at Colleges, Don’t Call It ‘Disruption’

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

To Get Buy-In for New Ideas at Colleges, Don’t Call It ‘Disruption’

By Sydney Johnson     Mar 22, 2018

To Get Buy-In for New Ideas at Colleges, Don’t Call It ‘Disruption’
Cal State University Channel Islands

Ginning up ideas isn’t always the hard part in academic innovation. Instead, more and more leaders working on digital initiatives at colleges are finding themselves with a less technical challenge: strategic communications.

That was one recurring thread during a gathering of 35 higher-ed innovation leaders this week at a very rainy Cal State University Channel Islands. This was the third time the group came together for invite-only convening, known as The HAIL Storm (short for Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners).

Many of the college officials at the event work in so-called “academic innovation hubs”—or something of the like—at their respective institutions. These tech-infused centers have been met with both praise and skepticism by faculty and campus leaders. Several of those at the two-day event shared this experience—as well as ideas on what to do about it.

So what, exactly, does a campus innovation team do? Conveying the answer clearly to faculty and administrators was one of the challenges raised by attendees. To iron out miscommunications or pre-existing notions, many said they have had to figure out what kind of language resonates with different campus stakeholders in order to get their message across without facing immediate shutdown from naysayers.

For example, techie jargon like “disruptive” and “innovate” doesn’t bode well with some faculty members. And the idea of innovation often varies across disciplines, too. One college official shared that the engineering department might see innovation in a different way than historians do, and reaching both parties requires intentional language.

Terah Crews, a partner at higher education consultancy firm Entangled Solutions, explained that with a recent partnership with Davidson College, she and others had to learn to talk about innovation in multiple ways. “We’re finding the right way to communicate,” Crews said.

“We are putting the 'disruptive' language aside. It doesn’t work for faculty or staff,” added Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation for the Davidson College. The Silicon Valley-speak can resonate for some though, she added, including trustees.

In the absence of clear language, digital initiatives can be perceived as threatening. And concerns and reservations from faculty are not without reason. One attendee described the sentiment from faculty as: “You took our students for online programs and we hate you.”

Some at the event attributed uncertainty—and even suspicious theories—about campus innovation to difficulties in explaining motivations behind the work itself. To tackle those questions and criticisms head-on, one college official prompted the group with: “I want to hear your conspiracies” (referring to their motivations).

“My conspiracy is to keep the bachelor’s relevant and not assume that society isn’t going to continue to change,” said Rachel Niemer, director of strategic initiatives at the office of academic innovation at University of Michigan.

At Davidson College, Eshleman said her department has, over time, worked on ways to “socialize” technology initiatives on campus. A large part of that process has been allowing faculty and college stakeholders to weigh in on initiatives and even submit their own ideas.

She also pointed to a pilot platform at her campus called ideascale, where users including faculty can share ideas, comment on others to iterate on them, and see what stage a particular suggestion is at. If an idea is rejected, there is also an explanation of why.

Paul Jurasin, director of the digital transformation hub at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo, said he is attempting to loop other faculty in on what his center does through a communications tour of sorts.

“I’ve been on a roadshow to meet with all department heads,” said Jurasin. “They were much more receptive to the innovation process then I thought they would be and they said they wanted us to provide workshops so they understood it better.”

Other approaches shared included inviting faculty to the innovation hub itself. Jessica Knott, learning design manager for Michigan State University Information Technology and the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, said they bring in faculty fellows and students into their innovation hub, and consider them “the ultimate provocateurs.”

“We have an idea and get people in and let them destroy it completely, and we learn from that,” she said.

These methods are a departure from the more traditional request for proposals, or RFP, process that many institutions and agencies rely on to come up with solutions to large-scale problems. Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, shared thoughts on how the RFP process contradicts the bottom-up solutions approach that he and other leaders at the event advocate for.

“The internal RFP is a broken method for surfacing and supporting academic innovation,” Rascoff said. “It presumes the applicant knows the answer, submits, and gets funded. It’s a competitive process that doesn’t fit the collective challenges universities face. What we need instead are opportunities for inclusive collaboration among applicants and between applicants and funders.”

Crews, the partner at Entangled Solutions, poked holes at another popular way that faculty have traditionally engaged with new ideas for innovation: association conferences. “The old method of ‘let’s go to a conference and learn what we need to fix our institution’ doesn’t work.” Instead, she suggested institutions look internally at the ideas that are already brewing among their faculty and instructional designers.

“The faculty and people at the institution have great ideas, but we don’t know what to do with them,” Crews said. “We just need to create better communication tools. These innovation units should be in service of [faculty], not in place of them.”

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