Creating a Culture of Innovation for All Learners

There is likely to be a consistent theme in most commencement addresses this year: reflection. Keynote speakers will share their thoughts with students about a tumultuous period in higher education. But as college and university leaders ask students to reflect, it’s a good opportunity for leaders in these institutions to do some searching of their own.

Before the pandemic, innovation could be a fraught concept in postsecondary education, synonymous with change to institutions that are proud of their traditions. Now, due to the adoption of technology’s being a requirement for survival over the past year, discussing
“innovation” is a recurring theme among the industry’s prognosticators — advocates and detractors alike. But the term’s liberal application to describe last year’s sudden, albeit essential, changes does not suggest a deliberate shift by all leaders to move from a system that’s failed.

For  many students, the college experience is all too similar: fixed, rigid and designed for the convenience of the institution, not the modern-day learner. To accommodate these learners, institutions have offered technology to modify the traditional four-year experience. Using technology, however, isn’t the same as innovation. Not surprisingly, learners are demanding — and deserve — something better.

When we think of innovation in education, we start with a culture of individualized learning that helps all students discover, develop and deploy their unique aptitudes and gifts. A true culture of innovation also recognizes the importance of entrepreneurship among faculty and administrators, particularly how they can all be empowered to remove obstacles that delay or hinder experimentation.

As higher-education leaders reflect on applying these principles to advance their mission and help the diverse learners they serve, these are some critical questions that I think all institutions need to consider if they are to adopt a culture that is committed to innovation:

  • Purpose: If postsecondary education can help students adapt to change throughout their lives, institutions need to do the same. Institutions should leverage the expertise of their campus communities to provide a comprehensive learning experience that is inclusive of theoretical, practical and hands-on approaches. Just 41 percent of students feel prepared for their careers and three-quarters of employers struggle to find graduates with required soft skills.
  • Enrollment: While the number of undergraduates has increased 62 percent since 1980, leading institutions often measure success based on who they exclude. If institutions believe they’re offering a world-class experience, expanding access doesn’t cheapen it — it strengthens it. Also: Does differentiating nontraditional from traditional learners create an unnecessary two-tiered system and disincentivize faculty from meeting students’ unique needs? If a two-tiered mindset exists, institutions ought to consider whether they are prioritizing quality instruction for all potential learners or networking experiences for those already well-positioned to take advantage.
  • Transfer: Every institution claims to value lifelong learning, but outdated and misaligned transfer credit policies can present a substantial barrier. True lifelong learning requires seamless off- and on-ramps that makes the concept of dropping out a thing of the past. Arizona State University’s Cheryl Hyman has spoken about offering tools to help students “transfer in and out, back and forth, that take them from where they are to where they want to be.”
  • Sunk-cost fallacy: Expansive campus facilities are expensive but often unnecessary. At the University of Texas at Austin and Florida’s public institutions, pre-pandemic classrooms were utilized just 42 percent and 43 percent of the time, respectively. Through investing in course design and more effectively using physical spaces, the University of Central Florida estimates it has saved hundreds of millions of dollars. Conversely, deferred maintenance and the millions of dollars needed to tackle such projects are becoming harder to come by.

Over the past year, it has become cliché to point out that there is simply no going back to the status quo. But that doesn’t mean schools will inevitably move forward – campus leaders ought to be concerned about standing still. Today’s modern-day learner isn’t going anywhere. The challenge is not just preparing for the reopening of campuses in the fall, but also the reflection necessary to embrace a culture of innovation that will lead to improved opportunities for every learner.


Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation.

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