College transformed: 5 institutions leading the charge in innovation

Higher education leaders today confront a bevy of criticisms ranging from worsening affordability and persistent socioeconomic disparities to a lack of relevance in the ever-changing economy. Institutions are beset by internal challenges and external pressures. Business models are cracking under enormous pressure as state appropriations decline and net tuition growth wanes. Business as usual simply can’t continue.

The nature of competition in higher education is changing—presenting both challenges and opportunities. For decades—centuries, even—higher education has been on a continuous trajectory of developing more complex and comprehensive institutions to build and disseminate knowledge and educate students. But technology is enabling a new, disruptive path: simpler, more affordable, more accessible educational experiences, built in alignment to the needs of the workforce. Leaders can look to examples of institutions that are successfully innovating in the new environment, some along this new disruptive path, and others by incorporating disruptive technologies to move forward along the traditional trajectory:

Arizona State University: Its open-access Global Freshman Academy creates a new pathway into the institution, and an innovative business model allows students to pay when they successfully complete courses.

Northeastern University: Drawing on its expertise in experiential learning, it established a coding and analytics bootcamp that defines success by student outcomes in the workforce.

University of Wisconsin: In order to address workforce challenges in the state, it deploys a competency-based degree program that draws on the academic resources of the UW System to develop new, accessible programs targeted to adult learners.

Simmons College: In partnership with 2U, the college transformed its business model by developing high-quality, online graduate programs that expand its reach beyond geographical constraints.

Southern New Hampshire University: Its radically affordable College for America creates opportunities for adult learners through a competency-based degree program in which the university partners with employers.

Leaders at these institutions used a variety of strategies to ignite different types of innovation, including building heavyweight teams, developing autonomous units, partnering with external organizations, and creating alliances with employers. But similarities also emerge: successful innovators focus on solving specific challenges for specific types of students and proactively build their institutional capabilities for innovation.

As trailblazers in the evolving higher education ecosystem, these institutions illustrate how innovation, even innovation that goes against the organizational grain, can be successfully deployed. Their experiences offer lessons for any leader hoping to carve an innovative path forward in today’s turbulent environment.

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[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog.]


How does your university stand up in terms of innovation?

Most higher-ed institutions recognize the importance of innovation, and many are hiring a dedicated innovation officer, according to The Emergence of the Chief Innovation Officer in Higher Education, from Russell Reynolds Associates.

Across the nation, two- and four-year institutions are supporting initiatives and programs that strive to bring innovative changes and experiences to their campuses and beyond.

Here are four colleges leading the way down the innovation path.

1. Purdue University
Purdue University is making data science education part of every student’s learning experience on campus while also boosting research and partnerships to help grow the data-driven economy. The Integrated Data Science Initiative (IDSI) is focused on applying data science research to pressing fundamental and socially relevant issues while establishing an educational ecosystem of data fluency to prepare students for the rapidly expanding future of a data-driven, knowledge economy.

“Data science—the grand interdisciplinary challenge to extract new knowledge from big data through advanced analytics—presents a transformational opportunity for Purdue,” says Jay Akridge, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity. The initiative will prepare every Purdue student with a fundamental understanding of data science in their chosen field.

2. Penn State University
Student teams at Penn State are working on five different prototypes in the Nittany AI Challenge, which funds potential solutions to real-world problems. Last year, 71 teams applied and 10 teams were awarded $2,500 to develop prototypes with AI tools. Five teams were awarded an additional $5,000 to develop a minimum viable product. The projects include a tool to help students map out their potential career path, an application that uses machine-learning algorithms to recommend effective course pathways, and a solution to provide intelligent, personalized, and scalable guidance about opportunities at the university.

3. University of Michigan
Researchers at the University of Michigan are turning to big data to shed light on how humans understand and experience music. Four separate research teams will conduct projects applying data science tools, such as machine learning and data mining, to music theory, performance, social media-based music making, and the connection between words and music. Funding comes from the Data Science for Music Challenge Initiative through the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS). Projects will focus on understanding and mining patterns of audience engagement and creative collaboration in large-scale crowd-sourced music performances, understanding how the brain processes music through the Bach Trio Sonatas, the sound of text, and a computational study of patterned melodic structures across musical cultures.

4. Central New Mexico Community College
Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) has partnered with Build With Robots to introduce the fast-growing technology of collaborative robots (cobots) to New Mexico’s economy and to those interested in learning about the technology and applications of cobots. In contrast to conventional industrial robots, cobots are safer for working alongside humans to perform dangerous or repetitive work, from manufacturing tasks to painting to screw driving. They can be repurposed for new tasks easily without the need for complex coding, and they’re relatively inexpensive.

Build With Robots is housed in CNM Ingenuity’s FUSE Makerspace, located in the heart of the Innovation District in downtown Albuquerque. The FUSE Makerspace provides students, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and hobbyists access to high-tech machinery and computer software to design and prototype new products, create artistic works or pursue their hobbies while working in a collaborative, supportive environment.


Higher ed must help students improve critical-thinking skills

Critical thinking is one of the top-requested skills employers look for in job applicants, but is higher ed doing enough to help students develop this skill?

Fifty-nine percent of surveyed adults ages 18-31 who attend or attended a college or university say they are very confident in their soft skills, including critical thinking—but that same survey also shows a decrease in that group’s ability to distinguish between false and factual information.

The second annual State of Critical Thinking survey from MindEdge asked respondents to complete a brief quiz requiring them to use digital literacy and critical thinking skills. In 2018, respondents scored lower on every question compared to 2017, and 52 percent of last year’s respondents received a failing grade.

The survey offers a number of takeaways, some more worrisome than others:

1. In 2017, 44 percent of survey respondents received an ‘F’ on the critical thinking quiz. In 2018, 52 percent of respondents failed the quiz.

2. In 2017, 24 percent of respondents answered at least 8 of the 9 quiz questions correctly. In 2018, just 19 percent of respondents answered at least 8 questions correctly.

3. Half of recent college graduates say soft skills, such as creativity and critical thinking, and hard skills, such as computer programming and analytics, are equally important in today’s workplace. Among those who express a preference for one or the other, soft skills (31 percent) are seen as more important than hard skills (18 percent).

4. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of respondents say their college education taught them skills they’ll need to succeed in the workforce, and 59 percent are very confident in their soft skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, and public speaking.

5. Respondents tend to rate their own critical thinking skills relatively high, with just 12 percent rating critical thinking as their weakest skill. But only 25 percent of those surveyed say their peer and colleagues have strong critical thinking skills.

6. Fake news continues to present a challenge. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed receive news from social media platforms and 50 percent get their news from print or online newspapers. Nearly half (48 percent) say the fake news problem has worsened over the past year.

7. When it comes to who or what to blame for fake news, 24 percent of those surveyed blame politicians who claim negative stories about them are fake news; 21 percent blame websites that promote false content to advance a political or ideological agenda; 20 percent blame content producers who make up false stories to make money; 17 percent blame social media platforms that allow false content to go viral; and 11 percent blame content producers who make up false stories to make money.


8 students spill the tea on their online learning programs

Colleges and universities are paying more attention to their online learning programs, and for good reason: The idea of the “traditional” straight-from-high-school student has been eclipsed by a growing group of students who are working adults balancing family and personal obligations. Often, online learning is the preferred program for these students.

Online learning programs have a lot of benefits, but at the end of the day, each student has to decide which program and which learning approach suits their individual needs.

Some of the best evidence of online learning programs’ success comes from students themselves.

College ranking site features testimonials from students enrolled in a variety of online learning programs across the country. Two themes emerged as the team reviewed testimonials from more than 1,000 students: flexibility and the quality of education, including academic rigor and access to professors and classmates.

Here’s a look at some of the students’ testimonials:


1. “Being a high school assistant principal requires devoting many nights and weekends to school functions. With an online program, I can complete my work and interact with my peers at any time as I am not confined to a few hours once a week. Also, my conversations with my peers extend over days and allow both my fellow students and me to interact in authentic and meaningful dialogue. We are able to analyze and evaluate our thoughts before posting them on discussion boards. Sometimes people are not comfortable speaking in front of others or take time to think through their answers; an online platform solves both of these issues. So far, my interactions with my peers have been rich and insightful while also allowing for multiple perspectives.”
Nicole, F., EdD in Leadership and Innovation, Arizona State University


5 ways to improve support for part-time students

Although community colleges have started to enroll more economically-disadvantaged students, those students are not graduating at rates comparable to their peers, according to an EAB whitepaper, Reframing the Question of Equity. What’s worse, they drop out and retain debt.

Community college students are increasingly diverse, and traditionally underrepresented student populations have increased. Gaps in college access and enrollment have started to shrink. But while underrepresented minorities are more likely to attend community colleges than their white peers, too few of them graduate, leaving gaping degree attainment gaps.

Many students now enrolling in community colleges are low-income and first-generation students–with those two risk factors, they are four times more likely to drop out after their first year.

Because campuses see increased diversity, the whitepaper notes, community college leaders must focus on equitable outcomes. Focusing on part-time students can help shrink achievement gaps, because part-time student populations include some of the most at-risk students.

If part-time black students graduated at the same rates as part-time white students, the overall achievement gap between black and which students would improve by 62 percent. If part-time Hispanic students graduated at the same rates as part-time white students, the achievement gap would improve by 58 percent.

The whitepaper offers a number of approaches to focus on supporting part-time students:

1. One strategy to reduce achievement gaps is found in engaging students who have limited time on campus.

2. Addressing institutional barriers that disproportionately affect part-time students is another strategy.

3. Offering a clear route from application to enrollment by reducing the complexity of the onboarding process and offering individualized guidance can help part-time students who may otherwise be overwhelmed by the requirements to complete enrollment.

4. Ensure academic planning tools are adaptable for use by part-time students. Academic plans are often presented in full-time term-by-term formats. Part-time students need adapted plans that take into consideration their pace and competing priorities.

5. Focus on delivering student-centric student experiences. Technology can help in providing resources and engagement for students who spend most of their time off campus but who are on campus at uncommon times, such as for evening classes, which often lack the same student support services as daytime classes.


The biggest barrier to deconstructing education is not money

The problem with most educational responses to the pressures of the Digital Age is that they have been of the first-order variety. Janet Murray described this as “new technologies are extending our powers faster than we can assimilate the change.”

She goes on to say, in Hamlet on the Holodeck: “Even when we are engaged in enterprises that cry out for the help of a computer, many of us still see the machine as a threat rather than an ally. We cling to books as if we believed that coherent human thought is only possible in bound, numbered pages.

I think we all know at some level that she is right. I hear my colleagues saying “We need to change” all the time.” However, what we define as “change” often revolves around adding new technologies to existing sets of stories.

Murray realized early on that we cling to notions of the prior technological and systemic world and this impedes our ability to see, and shape, new stories. We learn to fail faster but do not understand the roots of those failures because we never critically examine the underlying stories that may or may no longer make sense in the current context.

Much of the effort of the last two decades has been centered around technology platforms that enhance what we are able to do in the classroom. Much of this this effort revolves around “enhancing” old narratives with new technology. Around the edges there has been discussion of approaches such as active learning and empowered learning but, at the end of the day, most classes still resemble those of 1950 or even 1920.

One of my frustrations as an educational innovator has been my inability to fundamentally break through some of the basic assumptions that underlie the activity in most learning environments. Distance education has merely transferred the anachronisms of the physical classroom to the digital world (and created an inferior product in most instances). The only solution to these fundamental issues is to get people to step back and think about what they’re really doing as they’re trying to teach, assess, and, hopefully, connect with their students.

Supposedly “digital” learning environments are far from it because they never question the paradigmatic assumptions from the analog classrooms they are trying to mimic. The digital world allows us to reconfigure everything, even the physical world. It allows us to question the very nature of the term “classroom” and yet we still use that metaphor to describe an environment where learning begins—and often ends. Are grades an anachronistic vestige of mass production model of education, where students resemble widgets more than they do minds?


Is your college part of the the 21st Century Skills Badges initiative?

The 21st Century Skills Badges initiative, from Education Design Lab, is based on three years of research, design, and pilots and offers a suite of eight digital badges, often called microcredentials, along with a facilitator’s toolkit, to help educators and employers understand the skills students have cultivated.

Education Design Lab partnered with 12 universities and 50 employers to develop the badges. Students can display them on LinkedIn accounts or resumes.

Employers say they have an increasingly difficult time finding highly-qualified applicants for job openings, particularly in STEM fields such as computer science. The digital badges are designed to be “machine readable” by search algorithms recruiters use to identify potential job candidates.

“Now, more than ever, it is increasingly important to find candidates who are a good fit,” says Shonn Colbrunn, senior director of human resources at Spectrum Health System. “A resume will show what degree someone earns, but it is more difficult to gauge their level of interpersonal skills. The rigor that goes into earning a digital badge provides a helpful indicator of what we can expect to see from that person on the job.”

The digital badges, developed in partnership with individual universities, each represent sought-after skills employers wants in potential employees, including initiative, collaboration, creative problem solving, critical thinking, intercultural fluency, empathy, oral communication, and resilience.

Beyond the pilot universities, more than 100 learning institutions in higher education and K-12 signed up in advance of the broader release to consider implementing the 21st Century Skills Badges.

The suite of eight digital badges is part of a larger movement to drive overall microcredential adoption. The #TeeUpTheSkills movement urges the public to adopt an accessible and consistent currency for credentials across the hiring landscape.

“In a tightening job market, we need better signals than a resume to find candidates who are a good fit. We believe digital badges will be powerful market signals for employability, particularly in building more diverse hiring pools for roles where interpersonal skills matter more than technical know-how,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder of Education Design Lab.

Watch the video below for more information about the digital badge initiative:

Material from a press release was used in this report.


10 underrated schools that deserve a second look

It’s common to be wowed by big-name schools or schools that always appear in national higher-ed rankings, but every student has unique needs in a campus and an academic program.

In fact, there are some institutions that aren’t included in most college rankings, but that still have a lot to offer students. Looking primarily at financial outcomes such as starting salary and ROI, CollegeVine compiled a ranking of consistently underrated college and universities.

The following criteria were used to compile the list: cost of attendance and generosity of financial aid and scholarships; one and five-year ROI after graduation; financial performance of specific majors; and qualitative data on career outcomes like job placements and grad school progression.

1. San Jose State University

San Jose State is chronically underrated by most families and guidance counselors. Because of its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, students pursuing STEM have really good outcomes (thanks to the job market in the Bay Area).

2. University of Houston

This is another school that has strong STEM outcomes, particularly in more “physical-world” subjects like petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, and other hard sciences. In particular, US News ranks Houston as the #171 college in the country, but the strength of the Houston job market and the excellent merit scholarships put its ROI comfortably in the Top 40 for such programs.


We need to rethink how students learn

Employers are in desperate need of skilled workers to address current employee shortages and prepare for projected disruption in the workplace. Artificial intelligence, for example, will create 2.3 million jobs while eliminating 1.8 million by 2020, according to a 2017 Gartner report.

To fill jobs now while preparing for the future, countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education. Such a change requires new mindsets for institutions and businesses.

The rise of micro-credentials
Perhaps the biggest trend that has the attention of colleges and universities is “microcredentialing,” as enrollment continues to decline in traditional college degree and master’s programs.

“As we move toward an ecosystem of skills- or competency-based hiring, employers will care less about the degree itself,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of the nonprofit Education Design Lab (The Lab), an organization that works with more than 70 institutions and employers to prepare students to fill jobs, and offers opportunities to earn employer-desired skills. “For liberal arts degrees particularly, institutions have to think about how to compete at the competency level, not the degree level, because that’s what consumers will expect in many disciplines.”

deLaski believes that college departments offering majors that prepare students for regulated industries that require degree-level certifications may find it easier to keep their full degree-level requirements in place, such as pre-med and K-12 teaching.

“Many proponents of student success argue that employers will continue to require a degree for most roles,” she says, “but once employers start accepting ‘shortcuts’ or ‘alternatives,’ and once competency-based hiring gains steam, the pace of disruption will quicken.”

The tight labor market already has employers like IBM, Walmart, and Amazon experimenting with alternatives to the four-year degree. In response, higher education is rethinking the value of the degree, accelerated by pressures like the Internet of Things, automation, student debt, and wage stagnation. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that less than half of Americans believe that a four-year degree is “worth it.”

The drivers of change
To create real change in the higher-ed landscape, deLaski outlines key areas that have potential to transform higher education toward the future of work.

Microcredentials for 21st century skills
Microcredentials in higher education have exploded in the past couple years; one in five colleges offer digital badges. To support institutions and employers in defining standards for badges, Education Design Lab designs and tests rigorous courses that enable students to hone in-demand skills desired by employers.

“The four-year degree may always be important for certain STEM majors, but we see students hungry for translation of their broader learning to more tangible competencies, and we see employers ready to move beyond the resume and the four-year degree,” says deLaski.

Employers like IBM tell The Lab that technical skills are changing so rapidly that they don’t expect colleges to teach them. The changing landscape requires institutions to prepare a student to learn how to learn, which led The Lab to begin working on new ways to help students build and display their 21st-century skills.


Here’s how Wayne State nearly doubled its graduation rate in six years

Federal data show that Wayne State University in Detroit has the fastest-improving graduation rate in the nation among public universities with more than 10,000 students. In fact, the percentage of students who earned a degree within six years of enrolling at Wayne State nearly doubled from 2011 to 2017, jumping from 26 percent to 47 percent, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Even more impressive is that these gains have been particularly pronounced among first-generation, low-income, and minority students, the university says.

While Wayne State’s graduation rate increased by 21 percentage points in six years, national graduation rates have increased only two percentage points over the last decade.

Wayne State’s emphasis on boosting graduation rates began in earnest in 2011, when it launched a Student Retention Initiative. Over the next five years, the university invested more than $10 million in student success projects. Here are four key areas the university has focused on.

1. Academic advising
“The core of the initiative was an overhaul in academic advising, which has led to proactive, individualized advising driven by state-of-the art technology and comprehensive professional development,” says Monica Brockmeyer, senior associate provost for student success. “As a result, each student enters the university connected to the supports necessary for success.”

In 2011, Wayne State was using a centralized advising model in which advisors worked out of a campus Advising Center. Since that time, the university has hired 45 additional academic advisors and has embedded them into its schools and colleges, bringing its ratio of students to advisors down to about 300 to 1.

Wayne State still maintains an Advising Center, but its focus is on helping special student populations, such as veterans and students in transition. The university also runs a training academy out of its Advising Center to help advisors be more effective.

How often students meet with an academic advisor varies, depending on their needs. “We think that’s great news, because we are getting better at differentiating our support for students,” says Brockmeyer. Students whose needs are greater “are seeing their advisor (up to) 20 times a year, but university-wide, we average maybe two student visits per year. That has roughly doubled since we began our initiative.”