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Overcoming Institutional Barriers to Innovation
Lessons from Ithaka S+R’s Case Studies

Last week, Ithaka S+R released a report on the findings of its first Higher Ed Insights survey. The survey collected the opinions of 96 higher education experts on the state of undergraduate education, and ways to make it more effective and affordable.

One of the most interesting findings was that a high percentage of respondents identified institutional culture or structures as the most substantial barriers to innovation. While this finding struck me as interesting, it did not surprise me. In the work I’ve done on Ithaka S+R’s case study series of educational transformation, real progress in institutional innovation only came with a genuine change in culture. While each institution approaches change differently, several common strategies have emerged.

Data-driven collaborative decision making

Institutions are best positioned to make strategic decisions when those decisions are informed by data. However, the institutions that use data most successfully provide spaces for faculty and staff to engage with those data, put them into dialogue with their own experiences, and actively participate in forming conclusions drawn from that information. For example, University of Central Florida, Valencia College, and other partner schools have streamlined and strengthened their DirectConnect to UCF transfer partnership by regularly gathering staff and faculty from all institutions to discuss enrollment and success data. The partners have developed concrete policies that guide communication, follow-up, and integration of these meetings’ insights. This approach ensures that data-driven decisions are contextualized within the experiences of stakeholders who work most closely with the students, while avoiding the inertia that could result from having so many diverse participants in the decision-making process. It has also provided a means through which the use of data for decision making has become embedded into each institution’s culture.

Using professional development as a lever for change

Institutions can also use professional development and reward structures to institutionalize curricular innovations and scale faculty-led innovations. Doing so not only aligns faculty incentives with student success goals, but also facilitates faculty participation while allowing them to personalize innovations for the students that they teach.

At UCF, faculty who wish to teach an online course must participate in an eight-week, interdisciplinary, course in which they work with an instructional designer to restructure their existing curriculum and reflect on their course goals and pedagogy. This process guarantees a level of quality in UCF’s online courses (which constitute an increasing share of the institution’s course offerings each year) at the same time that it engages faculty members as active participants in the creation of an online curriculum in an academically rigorous way.

Similarly, Valencia College uses faculty development courses as an opportunity for faculty members to workshop various curricular innovations, with appropriate opportunities for inquiry and flexibility in implementation. Additionally, Valencia ties tenure and promotion to faculty plans for student learning, and each tenure-track faculty member must develop a research plan to evaluate his or her own curricular innovations in order to be promoted.  Valencia’s “Innovation Funnel” provides a structure through which faculty projects designed during the tenure or professional development process can be brought from trial to broader application to full-scale adoption.

Strong executive and distributed leadership

An institutional leader with a strong, frequently communicated, student-centered vision to which he or she commits resources is a necessary component for organizational change. However, in general, the leaders who have been most effective at making progress on their vision haven’t done so unilaterally. Instead, they have relied on distributed leadership to manage the decentralized decision-making and planning processes characteristic of higher education institutions. For example, for an ambitious effort to redesign remedial math and English curricula across 58 campuses, the North Carolina Community College System Office created a planning structure that distributed responsibility across the state, institutional, and departmental levels. Departmental faculty redesigned their courses with a significant degree of autonomy and flexibility, but did so in a way that met institutional and system-wide standards (which were themselves collaboratively developed).

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Transforming institutional culture takes time, and can be one of the most nebulous aspects of the change management process. For institutions that have successfully transformed, culture change has been the result of concrete practices and structures that facilitate collaboration, trust, and shared values. It is from this foundation that institutions have successfully facilitated innovations that have improved student success.

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