Turning Optimism Into Action: Institutional Change in Higher Education
by Howard Weiner on June 23, 2015
As educational technology “grows up,” we’re seeing possibilities that weren’t imaginable even just a few years ago. From small outposts of point solutions to next generation courseware and platforms, institutions have never been in a better position to realize their respective missions, come through on their promises, and deliver a great student experience.
For instance, new platforms can now follow students’ progress through an entire academic life cycle. Providing consistent “touch points” and personal interactions help ensure that students get the most out of their education. These solutions guide young minds from middle school to college acquisition into employability. We know that engaged students persist at their institution of choice and the rise of the student-as-consumer is finding its own momentum. Investing in the student experience isn’t just a choice—it’s a decision, a technology decision.
We also know that for more students to embrace higher education, the overall cost (and the cost of materials in particular) needs to go down—and it is. The move to digital is reducing costs while delivering a student experience that is more engaging and more personal than the printed page ever promised to be. Commercial publishers are investing in new technologies while thoroughly committed to a cultural transformation. Fueled by the availability of OER content, a new category of “next gen” courseware solution providers is emerging. Not only do students have more choices, so do institutions and their faculty.
When I see the possibilities that exist today, I feel that educators and administrators must share my optimism.
The Two Institutional Impediments
The glow of optimism can be blinding, however. Time and time again, technology solutions are declined for evaluation. Stopped at the gate. Why?
- Scope. Sometimes it’s the product itself. Some of these solutions are so comprehensive, with the promise of sweeping change, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. In fact, I worry when administrators are NOT overwhelmed. To me, that means that they haven’t truly dug into the issues or researched the solution enough. The result? Paralysis. The perceived “evolutionary leap” is so big that the conversation stops before it even gets started.
- Silos. Institutions tended to be constructed around functional groups. These silos are so wed to legacy point solutions that even the notion of an introduction is a reason to pause. Given the investments in time and money to get to where they are, it’s understandable. The result? They pass the decision around until nothing happens. No one owns it, even when everyone understands that the solution is both necessary and urgent.
The Two Conditions for Success
What can we do to break through these issues? In my experience helping the higher ed sector design and implement solutions, success has some hallmark signatures. Boiling it down, the conditions for meaningful change have two basic requirements:
- You need a champion.
One of the things that I love about working in this sector is that there are some of the most inspiring and dedicated people you will ever meet. Their reason for being is always clear, and you can spot it from a mile away—they want to make an impact.
The promise of making huge improvements attracts people of this type to projects of this type, so they are easy to identify. The hard part, as always, is in the execution. I always look for a mixture of personality and skill set: Someone with vision. Someone who can inspire. Someone who can communicate. Someone who can marshal support. In short, someone who can lead.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find more than one person to take on the challenge. But if you don’t have that person, the project won’t go anywhere.
- You need a partner.
It’s hard to get a full view of what your institution is like when you’re sitting on the inside. It’s hard to navigate through the growing web of alternatives that exist outside of your own ecosystem.
Even the most talented administrators struggle with this. This is exactly the need that I sought to address when I started NobleStream with my business partner, Lisa March. I wanted to provide institutions with an independent view—identifying the problem, designing a tailored solution, bringing together the necessary ed tech partners, and then guiding the implementation process.
We assemble what we call “Transformation Teams” that couple your champions and our partners to tame the scope and open the silos. The walls come down, and new solutions start to flourish, fueled by energy and excitement.
In the best implementations, we see newly created positions that build bridges between departments. At times, we are the impetus. But often, the cultural change that we see has its roots in the talent that you already have on staff.
When these two factors exist, good things happen. I love being a part of it.
One Small Step, One Giant Leap
Change is always difficult. There are always things that stand in the way of progress. I’ve seen inertia completely immobilize even the best intentions.
In today’s world, that’s not a good enough excuse. For those institutions taking a defensive posture, the gates have swung open. Geography can’t protect them any longer. The fast pace of ed tech innovation means that competition for students will continue to increase. Those that don’t set the pace—or at least keep up—will get left behind.
Yes, students are consumers now. Their expectations have evolved. Increased competition means that they are in a position to make demands of you. You can bemoan the fact all you like, but the reality is that you are competing for their dollars—and you’d better be able to prove that it was a good investment by the time they leave.
If you are nodding along in agreement—great. Maybe you’re in the middle of executing such changes, or maybe you don’t know where to begin. I like to frame things in terms of Academic Challenges, so here’s a good starting point to spur discussion among your team and other stakeholders. I hope you find it to be helpful.