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7 Things Higher Education Innovators Want You to Know

Experts weigh in on the challenges of student success and the need for innovation in higher ed.

In order to close the growing achievement gap, higher education institutions need to focus on innovation, scale and diffusion, according to Bridget Burns, executive director for the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of 11 public research universities committed to improving graduation rates and sharing best practices. And most important, institutions need to communicate about what works and what doesn't. "Otherwise we are sentencing other universities to repeat our mistakes and our failures — and students deserve better," she exhorted.

Burns spoke last week at SXSWedu as part of a panel of eight higher ed leaders grappling with the challenges of student success. In the vein of sharing ideas, each panelist weighed in on the need for innovation, speaking for 7 minutes or less — about the same amount of time, Burns noted, that a busy university administrator can spare in a typical workday. Here are their insights.

1) Learning is becoming measurable — and more flexible. "We are right on the cusp of being able to measure student learning for the first time," said Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education for the U.S. Department of Education. "And this isn't just about new tests — this is about new environments for learning" that help teachers and mentors better understand what makes students successful.

Mitchell gave the example of flight simulators, which not only provide students with a way to engage in the activity that they want to learn, but also have data systems that monitor students' learning over time, providing them with structured feedback at just the right moment. This sort of data-centric assessment of learning is happening in more and more disciplines — and that opens the door to more innovation, he argued.  

"As we approach the measurement of student learning through competencies and masteries, it unlocks a lot of innovative practice," Mitchell noted. "Once one has identified the skills that students need to master, and accomplished the task of being able to measure those, you can make the learning exercise itself far more flexible." For instance, competency-based education now makes it possible to learn from anywhere, any time — which is particularly important for today's non-traditional students balancing education, work and family, he said.

"If you can measure student learning and mastery of competencies, if that can happen independent of time and space, then let's certify that learning in chunks that are small," Mitchell continued. "Let's look at micro-credentialing as a way of building up skills for students of all ages — of building them up in such a way that they get credit for the work that they've done, what they've mastered, while at the same time they're building a stack of certificates and micro-credentials that then would enable them to move into the labor market, to move on to further higher education." That innovation, he said, is what will change students' lives — and our nation — forever.  

2) We need a common definition of college affordability. "Politicians, policymakers, higher education administrators — everyone wants to make college more affordable. But what does that really mean? How do we gauge whether or not college is affordable?" asked Zakiya Smith, strategy director for the Lumina Foundation. There are a lot of different ways to measure the cost of college — sticker price, net price, return on investment, student loan debt — but none of those things really mean anything if we can't come to a common understanding of what college affordability means, she said.

The Lumina Foundation has worked to develop a standard language around affordability, drawing from fields such as housing, retirement and healthcare — other social sectors that have struggled with the question of affordability. "There are things that we can learn from other sectors about how they've tackled their challenges of affordability," Smith said. "One of the main things that we learned from all these different sectors is that it's really difficult to do this work if you don't have a standard that you're working from." In housing, for example, the rule of thumb for planning and policymaking purposes is that about 30 percent of a person's income should go toward housing expenses, she explained. Higher education needs a similar benchmark.  

To address that gap, the foundation introduced the "Rule of 10": Students should be able to pay for higher education with savings generated from 10 percent of their discretionary income, over 10 years, and working no more than 10 hours a week while attending college. In this model, college affordability is defined based on a student's individual circumstances, acknowledging that the cost of college should be an investment over time.

"This is still under development," said Smith. "We're hoping to get more feedback on this over the next year or so, and we really want to engage in a conversation with the community about whether it seems like this makes sense."

3) The waves of change in higher education are far from over. "If you think the great colleges and universities of the past will be the only great colleges and universities in the future, then you've forgotten everything you knew about evolution and you need to up your game," asserted Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.  

"Our society is evolving much more rapidly than any institution of higher education," Crow said, pointing out that the current production of college degrees in the U.S. is woefully behind population growth. To achieve its goals in graduation rates, higher education needs a new wave of innovation, he said, citing his own university's efforts to create a new model of education where "full immersion and digital immersion are possible, costs are constrained and the scale is all scales, from individual learner to massive groups of learners, all operating at the same time."

Crow outlined a framework for innovation wherein knowledge is emphatically at the center of every educational enterprise, "like a black hole of unbelievable intense energy." Built around that, he said, are immersive, technology-enhanced learning (both on-campus and online), massive-scale learning, and the concept of education through exploration. "Now there are no more teachers, no more professors at the front of the stage — they are engaged in the creation of learning environments that allow people to learn at scales and in ways that have previously been not possible."    

Only then, he said, can institutions embark on the next wave of innovation. "Institutions must be driven by public value attainment," said Crow. "They must be driven by the desire to see people to become natural learners. They must be scalable, they must be innovative, they must be adaptive. They must have knowledge — the production of knowledge, the synthesis of knowledge, the storage of knowledge — at the core."

4) Traditional instruction no longer works for today's diverse learners. "One of the great things about higher education is that we're not only getting a greater number of learners, but also a greater diversity of learners — diversity in terms of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, work status, and on and on and on," said Candace Thille, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. On top of that, she said, there is diversity in terms of students' prior knowledge and the skills that they have coming into the classroom.

According to Thille, such diversity calls for a new approach to teaching and learning. "We need innovation," she said, adding, "I believe very strongly that innovation will come from inside not-for-profit higher education," rather than from external sources or markets.

A promising example, said Thille, is the use of educational technology to create personalized and adaptive instruction. As students interact with adaptive technology, the system collects large amounts of data, models those data, and then makes predictions about each student based on their interactions, she explained. Those predictions are then used for pedagogical decision-making — either feeding information back into the system to give the student a personalized learning path, or providing insights to faculty to help them give students individualized support.

"The challenge is that it's all still active research," noted Thille. And there's a problem: Many of the predictive models are proprietary, with vendors unwilling to share the inner workings of the technology. "That is alchemy, not science," she said. "We need the models and the data to be open, transparent, peer-reviewable and subject to academic scrutiny."

Models are not neutral, added Thille. They reflect the values of the people who designed them as well as the behaviors of the population from whom the data were collected. When models are built on our existing norms, "we very much risk tooling the norms into the technology and then reproducing inequality," she warned.

5) It's time to take data seriously. Ten years ago, Georgia State University faced serious achievement gaps, with graduation rates hovering around 30 percent. But thanks to a campuswide commitment to student success and a focus on data, said Timothy Renick, vice president for enrollment and student services, the institution has made a dramatic turnaround, raising its overall graduation rate by 22 points.

"We began to actually examine what we could do differently — based not upon hunches and traditions, but upon what the data told us the problems were for the students we enroll," said Renick. "We made a commitment not to raise our graduation rate through getting better students, but through getting better — and that gain meant looking in the mirror and making some significant changes."

One area where data helped identify a need for change was in the way students choose their major, said Renick. "When we looked at the data, one problem we found was that even the students who graduated from Georgia State were going through two-and-a-half majors before they graduated," he explained. "Low-income students can't afford to go through two-and-a-half majors before reaching the finish line. They rack up wasted credit hours, they add time to their degree." With 90 majors available to them and no context to help in the selection process, students struggled to find the right fit.

The university has now introduced "meta majors": broad categories like STEM, business or education that allow students to explore a field before committing to something more specific. During their freshman year, students take classes around those topic areas, attend lecture series, meet with faculty and go through diagnostics to help narrow down their interests. "By the time they pick their first major, it's going to be the thing that sticks," said Renick, adding, "In a two-year period, we've lowered the number of major changes at Georgia State by 30 percent."

Paying attention to data led to a host of other changes at Georgia State, including the implementation of adaptive learning for introductory math courses, "microgrants" that help students with end-of-semester financial shortfalls, and predictive analytics for student advising.

"What is the collective impact of this approach to taking data seriously? We're graduating 1,700 more students every year," said Renick. "In fact, we moved our graduation ceremonies from campus to the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons play, because we ran out of room."

6) A 21st-century learning culture starts with digital content. In 2010, Jackson State University was looking for ways that technology could better address the needs of today's learner. "We put together what we call our cyberlearning ecosystem," said Robert Blaine, dean of undergraduate studies and cyberlearning. "What that means is that we're building a 21st-century learning culture for all of our students, writ large across campus."

At the core of that ecosystem is digital content, delivered via university-supplied iPads. "We produced digital textbooks for students and we were able to do some amazing things right off the bat," said Blaine. "First of all, we lowered the cost for students by over 90 percent. The traditional textbooks that they were using would cost between $100 and $300 a book. These books cost $9.99."

The benefits of digital textbooks go beyond cost savings, noted Blaine. Jackson State is able to align its learning content with the specific outcomes that the institution wants to achieve. "We're able to coordinate the curriculum and focus on the skills that students need," he said. "And we're able to bring new relevance to the curriculum by bringing voices into the conversation that have been historically left out."

7) We need to change the way students think. Developing the skills to think and work through problems is every bit as important as mastery of the material in a particular subject, according to James Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. When students learn to change their fundamental thinking, he said, they carry those skills over to other subjects. "If individuals take a class and do well, they should do better in their next courses. If they take my class, I hope they do better in future classes, and I don't care if they have anything to do with psychology," he asserted.

That is the philosophy behind Project 2021, a UT-Austin initiative focused on reinventing undergraduate education. The project aims to "change the nature of teaching, the nature of how we do curriculum, and rethink how we think of a course calendar," said Pennebaker. A key part of the revamp is finding ways to measure what works.

"We're building a research infrastructure that will go through and analyze not just how [students] do in their classes and future classes," said Pennebaker, "but also, how do they change in terms of their connection with others? Do they become more connected with the university?" 

The university is also working to engage students with a sense of community. "As we develop various classes, including online classes, one of our biggest fears is that students become more disengaged, less connected with others," Pennebaker explained. "One of the best predictors of dropping out of college is the failure to feel a sense of belonging." 

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