Academic innovations, in all case studies, are defined by ACE as “those that address challenges to, and augment outcomes around, student success and completion.” These can include educational technologies, pedagogical models, implementing alternative credentials, or any process deemed “disruptive.”

Learning from five unique university innovation incubators

1. Arizona State University’s (ASU) Office of University Initiatives’ Fellowship.

Question: Can dedicated innovation units be a productive investment?

Challenge it aims to solve: Taking innovation incubators from siloed programs housed in post-traditional units to an institution-wide scale.

How it works: Fellows in this program have 13 months to develop innovative initiatives and projects on behalf of the institution and report outcomes to the president’s office. Fellows are expected to define and manage their initiatives end-to-end: identifying opportunities, scoping a portfolio of projects, performing due diligence, providing project management and development support, and ensuring a smooth hand-off to the unit or organization that will house the projects post-launch. ASU’s Office of University Initiatives is one of an emerging kind of innovation incubator in higher education, notes the report—a unit that is dedicated to the identification, selection, and implementation of academic-program and service innovation at the institutional level.

Conclusion: The Fellowship in University Innovation Program is itself an example of an academic innovation for ASU: a differentiated approach to the identification of potential talent for the institution and an onboarding that immerses this talent pool immediately into non-siloed, collaborative, dynamic, and outcomes-driven environments that foster design thinking and thoughtful experimentation.

Takeaway: “The competition for finite audiences and resources is no longer at the academic program or unit level,” explains the report. “In order to successfully compete for students and deliver the educational value and outcomes expected, postsecondary institutions must develop an institution-level mindset and a structure or set of processes to support organizational learning and continuous improvement in education design, delivery, and assessment.

2. University of Connecticut’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL).

Question: Is this work already being done on campus?

Challenge it aims to solve: Centralizing innovation efforts.

How it works: CETL represents the integration of the former Continuing Education unit within the Institute for Teaching and Learning. It works collaboratively with faculty and admin to identify new program opportunities and emerging audiences; vets the programs; coordinates program approval; launches and administers the new program through a one-year incubation support period; grows academic unit capacity through coaching faculty leaders in marketing, program management, and program financial planning; and then hands the program over to the academic unit to run.

Conclusion: The Center is an example of previously disparate academic innovation hubs being centralized or combined in order to provide institutional-level strategic service. This centrally mandated and funded model leverages the specialized expertise and experiences of two historical models (continuing/entrepreneurial education and teaching and learning excellence) in a partnership with the academic units.

Takeaway: Though centralizing the incubator allows the unit to have a seat at the proverbial table, as well as help set the institutional agendas for change, many risks still exist, emphasizes the report. These risks exist as these models are “relatively new and untested…Institutions risk human and financial capital in support of a unit with an unforeseeable future and mandate.” For some colleges and universities, many current forms of academic innovation may pose enough risk to the institutional brand that the efficacy of an academic innovation unit is severely constrained, the report continues, “And most concerning is the potential for faculty mis-measurement of the impact of an academic innovation or through the mismanagement of the unit [lack of transparency, lack of cross-campus dialogue, and misunderstanding the highly collaborative requirements] such that an academic innovation backlash results.”

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