Jul 24 2018

3 Lessons on the State of Innovation in Higher Ed

Higher ed experts reveal how their institutions approach digital transformation and what it takes to lead a successful project.

Universities are focusing resources and manpower on improving outdated practices and technologies on campus with the latest innovations. But how many have a grasp of the state of innovation in the higher education sphere? 

A recent report from Learning House and the Online Learning Consortium surveyed academic administrators in order to understand what university decision-makers are really looking for right now and what lessons they’ve learned from their implementation strategies.

Survey results show “many survey respondents and interviewees either called out technology specifically or gave examples of innovations that required new technology; some even equated innovation with technology,” according to the report’s authors. 

While the implementation of new, cutting-edge tools is essential for planning an innovation agenda on campus, decision-makers should understand the nuances of what innovation means for higher education institutions in order to make informed decisions about campus integration.

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1. What Is Higher Education Innovation?

When surveyed about what innovation actually means to higher education institutions, the only thing administrators could agree on was that there is no formal definition

Study authors defined the word as “the implementation of new initiatives to drive growth, increase revenue, reduce cost, differentiate experience, or adjust the value proposition.” However, for participants, the term innovation broke down into two distinct categories: problem-solving and evolution.

“I tend to look at [innovation] like, how do you help large public institutions fulfill their missions, but how do they do that in a way that evolves with the times?” Evangeline J. Tsibris Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online at the University of Florida, tells OLC. “Because most public institutions, including this university, pride themselves on traditions and almost define themselves based on their tradition … they're inherently destined to resist change and resist innovation, unless you do it right.”

Understanding which camp an institution falls into can help guide where resources should be allocated. A university looking to solve problems may invest in education technology that  alleviates some of the pressures of everyday tasks, while those looking to evolve may be more interested in technology that embraces new ways of learning on campus.

2. Listen to User Needs and Create a Plan

While 50 percent of surveyed institutions said they are on the leading edge or fast followers in technology innovation, OLC found one out of four universities did not have a plan behind their actions.

It is essential to have an idea before diving into a digital solutions project. One way is to understand the needs and wants of all players within the institution, from students to administrators, to create the most effective innovation strategy. And sometimes students lend a significant voice to that strategy. 

At the University of Minnesota, students were vocal about the poor internet connection on campus. In response, the university installed 10,000 new Aruba access points around campus to bring a new wave of network mobility to campus.

Other institutions form student committees to give unique insight into where technology is needed most.

“I think students drive innovation in actuality and probably in one of the more powerful ways, because they shared their experiences that they have in one classroom with the faculty members in another classroom,” says Victoria Brown of Florida Atlantic University in the report. “I don't know that we always give that credence or that power to students. They're the most powerful drivers of change sometimes.”

3. Higher Ed Institutions Face Barriers to Change

Administrators noted structure, culture and resources as the top three barriers to bringing innovative solutions to their campus. In the face of these challenges, strong, transparent and supportive leadership is critical.

“[A chief academic officer] has to have a certain vision and a certain willingness to take some risk, because you can only cut the pie up in so many pieces,” Jane Neapolitan, assistant provost in the Office of Academic Innovation at Towson University says in the report. “I've noticed that in institutions where the chief academic officer really puts some teeth behind an initiative, some resources — whether it's money or people or purchasing something that will help make a difference — that's when you can really expedite the change.”

At the University of Central Florida, for example, leaders set up specific individual goals for each department, assigning responsibility and tracking progress to ensure professors feel a sense of investment and responsibility in the push for new digital learning tools.

The University of Central Florida online program is ranked one of the best in the country by U.S. News and World Report

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