Monday, December 03, 2012


Thoughts on an Innovation Fund

What could public higher education do with a significant, sustained funding source dedicated specifically to innovation?

Jeff Selingo asked this question recently, and I like it a lot.  

if we assume that many of the issues facing higher education are structural and long-term, then it makes sense to focus on solutions that are both structural and long-term.  

That’s not how funds like this are usually used.  Typically, an RFP goes out inviting proposals from small groups to “pilot” something small, isolated, and measurable.  The idea is that it’s easier to gauge outcomes if you keep the project small enough to measure, and the intended outcomes modest enough to fall within the temporal frame of a short-term grant.  (Anything longer than five years is relatively rare.)

The problem with the “start small” approach is that it tends to favor “boutique” programs.  Give a group of, say, fifty students an extraordinary array of “wraparound” services for several years, and yes, you can improve their outcomes.  Some methods are more effective than others, and some effects longer-lasting than others, but it’s pretty well established that if we could, say, triple our per-student spending, we could get better results.

Which is almost as useful as saying that if we could fly, traffic jams would be easier to avoid.  It’s probably true, but it doesn’t help.  

There’s no realistic prospect of being able to scale up such high per-student spending to entire colleges or systems.  It’s just not in the cards right now.  Which means that boutique programs, whatever their merits on their own scale, are not system solutions.  And there’s an argument to be made about the fairness of concentrating resources in a few boutiques when so many classes are taught by adjuncts, and costs to students continue to climb.

We’ve been thinking much too small.

Rather than encouraging a half-dozen people on a campus to form some pilot with a few dozen students, I’d like to see projects on the scale of, say, New England, and measured over, say, ten years.  If we’re serious, we have to think big.  What would happen if several states moved entirely to a competency-based system for awarding credit?  What if several states moved simultaneously to eight-week semesters?  What if entire states devoted themselves to finding innovative and scalable ways to integrate MOOCs into, say, tutoring?  What if states had meaningful IR capacity?  What if neighboring campuses started to specialize programmatically in more systematic ways?  What if we developed ERP systems capable of doing what needs to be done, instead of letting ourselves be limited by what, say, Banner or Datatel can do?

This would require a much more farsighted approach to grantsmanship.  It’s always easy to put out RFP’s for microprojects, to highlight a few local successes, and to ignore the larger issues.  There’s still room for that, obviously, but it’s getting harder to keep ignoring the larger issues.  I’m happy to have support for local experiments; we have several on my campus, and I’d like to have more.  But at some level, the issues are far larger than any one campus can handle.  That’s where we really need innovation.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you like to see done with a large-scale, long-term innovation grant?

An intensive boot-camp one-class-at-a-time model, where a new class starts every other week and lasts only a month; offered year round.
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Long term innovation involves long term thinking by faculty and administrators, working together, and working outside their respective silos. For example, some MOOCs could be great in the tutoring center, a student service silo, but a prof from that subject area is needed to curate the content.

Or how about a feedback loop from the tutoring center back to the department about concepts that students frequently have trouble with? Those issues could then be addressed the next semester by tweaking the syllabus, and providing pointers to those teaching the courses.

How about more efficient management of adjuncts in large enrollment courses? As the number of full time faculty dwindles, and the number of students and adjuncts grows, there can be little innovation unless faculty in cc's and four year teaching colleges are willing to broaden their responsibilities to include more management duties that require their content knowledge. Our backwards-looking union is of no help in moving innovation along.

While lack of funding is always an issue, the more pressing issue is a lack of interest or lack of energy that stand in the way of even a simple idea. Our nearby R1 state universities seem to be moving at warp speed on so many levels, including student support,but the four year state college where I am at still seems to be stuck in the 1980s. Add to this the fact that the local R1 can now cherry pick their students, and so we get more and more unprepared ones , the very students who are in need of iinnovative and effective pedagogy.
No one would ever do this but I would like to see what would happen if students had their "gen ed" cut back to minimal math and english and got unit credit for internships and jobs to make up the difference.
I think Becca is talking about a version of the Block Plan. See Colorado College and Cornell College in Iowa as examples. It's expensive, but interesting.
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