Progress in any industry is an exciting thing. By virtue of our human nature, many of us are creatures of habit. That’s why we often see resistance to change even when it’s looming and necessary. The advancement of technology is laying a heavy imprint on every industry. How quickly technology helps an industry progress often depends on how receptive an industry or a business is to doing things differently than they’ve ever been done before.
Higher education in today’s world is facing many problems. Tradition is highly esteemed in institutions of higher learning. Tradition is also one of the biggest obstacles that colleges and universities face in trying to utilize innovation to help their institution make progress, be competitive and, in some cases, remain sustainable. When we talk about innovation as it relates to colleges and universities, it’s a good idea to explore what that really means. Can innovation make a difference in higher education outcomes? If so, how? More importantly, how can change agents demonstrate that innovation in higher education can succeed while overcoming obstacles and addressing any new risks?
Innovation in Higher Education Isn’t a New Concept
It’s not something most people think about, but higher education has changed throughout the centuries. As society has changed, colleges and universities have developed new courses of study and career paths to respond to the need to fill gaps or new opportunities in the workforce.
While colleges and universities recognize the need to develop new curricula and degree programs, they also recognize that new offerings come with a cost. With every new line item in the budget comes competition from other course offerings and departments. Regardless of how good innovative efforts are, when they come face to face with improving the quality of learning, allowing equal access to students and continuing research projects, innovation often takes a back seat.
In many respects, innovation gets a bad rap as a disruptive mechanism in higher education. As the tension between staff and others for competing forces increases, college boards and administration often become highly resistant to fundamental reform. Leaders don’t always delve into as many of these issues as they should, and innovation quickly drops by the wayside.
In another approach, some universities are trying some unconventional approaches, like unbundling course offerings or changing their course offerings by unbundling their teaching, residency or research course plans to increase access to new curricula. Such innovative changes may create a greater desire for job candidates who are trained using long-standing traditional teaching methods.
Innovation can take on a variety of different forms. Perhaps what many institutions of higher learning are missing is that while innovative propositions fall far outside the regular expectations and norms, radical approaches provide an opportunity to show students and the general public that they’re progressive by offering fresh solutions and new opportunities.
Technology is one of the most disruptive forces, and it’s something that has the potential benefit of integrating other learning experiences.
The combination of risk and costs makes some innovative efforts seem unreachable. One way to make innovation more attractive is to take an objective look at it and make sure that it makes reasonable sense and fits within the proper context.
When making a pitch for new approaches to learning in higher education, there are bound to be many questions from the board, faculty and administration. As stakeholders, the public may also have some concern or interest in big changes. Innovations have a greater chance of success when they are presented in an inspired way, presenting all the pros and cons. Changes will be better received when there is a well-conceived concept that connects to the college’s historical strengths, mission, strategy and goals for the future.
Even the greatest, most-inspired ideas are doomed to failure unless academic leaders are open to the idea of new visions. It can be tough to gain supporters who can’t envision new approaches to decades-old problems. It’s easier to acquire believers by engaging academic leaders early on in the process. Give them an opportunity to engage in it and be part of the process. Encourage decision-makers to imagine how new possibilities fit with current and future leaders. Being part of the process gives academic leaders a sense of ownership in it and fosters the desire for it to succeed. It also helps to provide opportunities to answer objections and questions.
For colleges and universities that have already taken those few steps outside the box, they’ve noted an unexpected benefit. Those who’ve successfully made innovative changes in higher education have benefited by strong professional and personal growth.
Barriers to Innovation
There will likely always be competing forces — those who desire change and those who’re happy with traditional learning methods, even when they stand in the way of innovation. While there are notable and determined forces working against innovation in higher education, innovative thinking helps universities thrive and survive during tough economic times.
Even when ideas are popular, academic leaders and boards will have an eye on avoiding risks. They need to know what they’ll be facing under the worst-case scenarios so they are assured they have a plan to deal with any related issues that may pop up, rather than to just endure it or ride it out. It’s harder to plan when risks aren’t readily apparent.
Competition is alive and well when innovation comes around. There is competition with other schools and other faculties and the fight to get a piece of the school’s budget to fund the initiative. Don’t underestimate the power of tradition and its impact on the current students and faculty. Tradition impacts alumni, which may also have a subsequent impact on the college’s donor resources.
One thing that could start to move the needle in the direction of innovation is changes in college board treatment. Forward-thinking colleges and universities may be looking at the issue of recruiting college presidents and provosts who have skills in change management. Transforming boards by adding qualities such as an entrepreneurial aptitude and past success in leading change will make a major difference in how college and university boards embrace innovation and how quickly they’re able to overcome internal and external objections to projects that lead to progress.
While technology is creating issues that work against innovation in higher education, it’s also becoming a big part of the solution. Technology by BoardEffect that supports modern governance is available to tackle the challenges that accompany innovation and progression in higher education. BoardEffect offers various software solutions for board portals, secure messaging, online voting, board self-assessments and more using a state-of-the-art secure digital platform.