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?