How universities are looking past incubators to future functionality.

innovation-universities-practiceAre college and university investments in innovation worth the time and money? Only if your incubators lead to scalable, sustainable success, says new research.

A recent report, conducted in 2014 by the American Council on Education (ACE) and Huron Education aimed to gauge some of the current thinking and practices of select institutions on taking innovation from a commonly passed around buzzword to actionable practice.

A survey of a sample of ACE member institutions revealed that approximately 10 percent had any organized institutional-level unit or effort dedicated to academic innovation development.

Of those 10 percent, ACE chose five institutions that had detailed case studies and data on their innovation incubators—each highlighting the goals, challenges, and outcomes of their own unique approaches to scaling innovation campus-wide.

(Next page: 5 ways to make innovation efforts worth the resources)

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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3. University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success (CILSS).

Question: How to determine the best-fit model and foster campus-wide engagement?

Challenge it aims to solve: “The (now) president and I realized that we needed some kind of R&D group who can take the best of the ideas for improving learning experiences for students, study those ideas, and implement them in a systematic and continuous way… But we’re still working on what is the right model,” explained Marie Cini, provost at UMUC.

How it works: CILSS partners with the graduate and undergraduate schools to provide A/B-style testing and evaluation of promising academic innovations in order to advise faculty and the institution on where to invest for greatest impact. Measurement of results using metrics such as course completion rates, reenrollment rates, and graduation rates allows the Center to determine recommendations for UMUC investment. Once an initiative is found to be significantly more effective to assist students in learning or to increase retention rates, the concept is implemented by the relevant school more broadly.

Conclusion: The Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success is not UMUC’s first attempt to develop an academic innovation incubator. Prior attempts suffered from siloed approaches that eventually caused them to stall out. “CILSS, however, is an exemplar of cross-campus collaboration,” emphasizes the report. “Faculty and administrators consider the Center a valued resource. Its director works closely with core faculty and academic support units throughout the research process, cross-pollinates ideas, and shares knowledge widely across campus, both from the Center’s work and from across the industry.”

Takeaway: UMUC describes even this successful model as a continuous work in progress. The Center continues to tweak processes for opportunity identification, expectations regarding turnaround time of the research, research timetables (given the pace of innovation), and its own funding model to enable the hire of additional specialists

4. The University System of Maryland’s Center for Academic Innovation.

Question: How to determine the best-fit model and foster campus-wide engagement?

Challenge it aims to solve: How to execute campus leadership from the Center.

How it works: The Center works to enhance student learning at a lower cost by through campus-level academic innovation initiatives. The Center fosters collaboration among the Academic Innovation leaders at each campus and supports the coordination of R&D efforts. For example, the Center convenes monthly the Academic Transformation Advisory Council at which the Academic Innovation leaders discuss not only individual campus initiatives, but also how to outsource services and distribute resources across each of the campuses, based on institutional strengths, in support of those initiatives (e.g., exploring system-wide CBE and digital badging pilots, asking legal counsel on one campus to share its intellectual property expertise with the other system institutions). In addition, the Center advocates on behalf of the campuses to external stakeholders such as the state of Maryland for policy development in support of academic innovation (e.g., moving beyond the course as the only unit of measure in particular policies).

Conclusion: Since USM is a federated model that values the autonomy of institutions, the Center has a service-orientation toward the campuses instead of a top-down quality.

Takeaway: Consider “convening, cross-pollinating, aggregating issues for effective advocacy, and focusing energy of the campus innovation leaders on collaborative problem-solving around common issues, such as overcoming institutional silos and reexamining campus facilities investments in light of some of the academic innovation initiatives on the table,” says the report. This will show that the campus leadership values leveraging the System rather than resisting System participation.

5. Miami Dade College’s Student Achievement Initiatives.

Question: Academic innovation incubators: Long-term trend or flash-in-the-pan?

Challenge it aims to solve: “Once we have all these innovations in place, do we need to maintain the academic innovation center? Or maintain a reduced version of it? Or dismantle it entirely?” asks Rolando Montoya, president of Miami Dade College.

How it works: Miami Dade College’s Student Achievement Initiatives is a grant-funded unit with a mandate to design an integrated and comprehensive model that increases and accelerates student success and completion across the student life cycle, from early intervention in high school to college admission, onboarding, pathways, and placement. To accomplish this, the Student Achievement Initiatives unit facilitates transformative change by guiding Miami Dade’s decision making through a multi-campus, cross-functional, and cross-disciplinary dialogue among faculty and key staff stakeholders (e.g., recruitment, admissions, student advising, etc.). In approximately three years, the college has accomplished a complete redesign of developmental education, a complete review of all academic policies (e.g., course registration, course transfer, etc.) to remove barriers to completion, and much more.

Conclusion: Miami Dade has hedged its bets on whether dedicated academic innovation units will be a long term solution. Unsure of funding beyond the initial grant period, the college decided to use the external funds to support a special unit staffed by temporary employees. These employees take an institutional-level view and act as internal consultants to promote change and innovation, guide and facilitate the change process, and develop and train faculty and student services staff to continue this work.

Takeaway: Consider ensuring that final decisions remain with permanent institutional faculty and staff, and that all of the resulting knowledge remains within the college. Miami Dade reallocates its own resources for the funding of any structures and positions that must be sustained beyond the grant period (e.g., investments in new student advisor positions, reengineering of current student advisor positions, major technology purchases, etc.).

For more detailed information on these case studies, as well as a list of recommendation on determining innovation incubator value overall, and calls to action for institutional leaders, read the full report here.


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