8 higher ed thought leaders share words of wisdom at SXSWedu

In 7-minute presentations, speakers talked everything from innovation to affordability

In one of the first sessions of SXSWedu 2016 in Austin, a group of higher ed thought leaders shared words of wisdom on everything from innovation and the evolution of the space to issues of affordability and changing demographics. 

Speaking in seven-minute presentations, the federal officials, university administrators and others had plenty to say.

Three ongoing sets of innovations

“We have the best colleges and universities in the world, but as a system, we’re radically underperforming,” U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell told the packed Governor’s Ballroom at the Austin Hilton. “We’re not going to solve the problems…by doing the same thing, the same way, over again.”

Cheekily stating that “I’m here because I’m from the federal government and I want to help,” Mitchell said he believes federal policy and programs are a good way to move from experimentation to scale when it comes to innovation. In particular, he detailed the following three sets of innovations as underlying what’s currently happening in higher ed:

  1. Measuring student learning: Mitchell said that institutions are “on the cusp” of being able to measure student learning without introducing new tests, using new environments for learning with immersive attention to particular sets of problems. These immersive approaches help students learn new skills and help educators learn where students are (or aren’t) as successful. He cited a visit to Florida’s Valencia Community College with Acting Secretary of Education Dr. John B. King, Jr., where the two spent some time with students engaging with a flight simulator. These types of learning opportunities, he said, allow structured feedback to be presented at the right moment and go beyond measures like seat time and degree attainment.
  2. Flexibility: Once you’ve identified skills that students need to master and are able to measure them, Mitchell said, you can make the learning exercise far more flexible. The act of learning is now able to be separated from time- and space-specific environments. Students no longer have to show up to specific classes on, say, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m. They can attend virtual classes on their own schedule. This, he said, is particularly important for today’s “new normal” students, who aren’t primarily 18-year-olds who show up on campus for the first time, but 24-year-old returning veterans or single parents who are heading back to school while trying to balance work. “For those students, you need to make learning more flexible,” he said.
  3. New ways of certifying learning: If you can measure student learning and mastery of competencies independent of time and space, you can certify that learning in smaller chunks than previously used. This can be done via micro-credentialing and certification. This is being done in coding bootcamps and is even helping to educate prisoners in San Quentin to prepare them for life after their release.

‘Waves of change’ far from over

“If you think the great colleges and universities of the past will be the only great colleges and universities of the future, then you’ve forgotten everything you knew about evolution,” said Arizona State University President Michael Crow. Crow breaks down higher education’s evolution into waves, with his institution pioneering “Wave 5.” 

The new models feeding that stage’s progress, however, are hindered by everyone wanting to mimic something that came before them. Innovation and new waves of change must occur to meet the rising demands of both population growth and goals for college attainment. All new models and education enterprises, however, must have knowledge at their core or they are something else, Crow said, stating that it was a detail that had been forgotten by the for-profits.

On top of that, he said that institutions in the fifth wave of higher ed must be scalable, adaptive, and innovative, breaking them down into five realms:

  1. Individual learners on campus, with full immersion and technological enhancement
  2. Individual learners online (The university’s Starbucks program falls under this realm.)
  3. Massive, open scaling
  4. Education through exploration, with educators engaged in the creation of learning environments instead of at the front of the stage
  5. To be determined, as universities in this wave are still evolving

“There is no chance of attacking that [evolution] if you use just market forces and assume that we’ll be able to derive solutions from just producing market-based institutions,” Crow said, adding that institutions must be driven by public-value attainment and a desire to see people become master-learners.

Higher ed must improve at transferring ideas

Colleges and universities must innovate how ideas are transferred, said Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. Traditional mediums in which they have attempted to do so for decades, she said, include conferences and white papers, “which nobody seems to read.”

“Conferences were actually never designed to transfer ideas from person to person, they’re much more about coverage,” she added, noting that they’re also not evaluated on transfer of ideas, but on metrics like attendance, money made, or press received. 

Improving how ideas are transferred from place to place will involve a lot of trial and error and more collaboration between institutions. Making it increasingly imperative are a growing shortage in college degree attainment and changing demographics in K-12 public schools; institutions of higher education will need to do a better job of serving an increasingly low-income feeder population coming from the public school system. 

There must be a common understanding of what affordability is

Lumina Foundation Strategy Director Zakiya Smith detailed the variance in how college affordability is discussed by policymakers and administrators, from free college for everyone to metrics of value and return on investment. In an effort to simplify the discussion, the Lumina Foundation has proposed a student-centric “Rule of 10” based on discretionary income and time: Students should pay no more than 10% of discretionary income for 10 years while working no more than 10 hours per week while in school.

Diversity is increasing beyond physical aspects

Diversity among learners is growing, but it’s not just along lines of factors like race, gender identification, sexual orientation or religion. Stanford University Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Candace Thille also sees growing diversity in learners' background knowledge, relevant skills, future goals and how they explain that knowledge and those goals.

To meet their needs, institutions, she said, must innovate from within. Via personalized learning systems, institutions can collect massive amounts of data and make predictions about those students that can influence pedagogical decision-making. But because those models are still active areas of research, they must be careful about outsourcing them to the proprietary sector so the methodology remains transparent. 

Once outside companies develop proprietary models, they can’t be shared and aren’t neutral, Thille said, as they reflect the values of the people who designed them and the behaviors of the population from which the data was created. If data is collected from a population that isn’t diverse enough, it can reproduce inequality instead of solving it.

Data helped Georgia State double grad rates among underserved students

Timothy Rennick, VP for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State University, lamented that despite the institution’s proximity to the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., the institution had failed to live up to the Civil Rights leader’s legacy with “pernicious and persistent” achievement gaps. But demographics in the state of Georgia, as well as in the city of Atlanta, are going through major changes, with 63% non-white enrollment and one of the nation’s highest Pell-eligible populations. Institutions in the state have also faced a loss of $40 million in appropriations to budget cuts over the past decade.

But by collecting data, Georgia State was able to turn its outcomes around. Many students were, at one point, going through two-and-a-half majors before graduating. The university introduced broader “meta-majors,” and within two years, the number of changed majors dropped 32%. Redesigning its math courses with adaptive learning dropped non-pass rates from 43% in 2008 to 19% today. 

Since 2012, the institution has awarded 7,291 grants worth an average of $900 and now sees 70% of seniors graduating. Coupled with the use of predictive analytics and other tools in advising interventions, Georgia State has doubled, and in some cases tripled, graduation rates by race and ethnicity over the past decade. According to Rennick, Georgia State now confers more degrees to black students than any other nonprofit institution in the country. 

‘Ocean liners change direction every day’

Jackson State University Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Cyber Learning Robert Blaine began his segment of the session citing an analogy that “change in higher education is like an ocean liner trying to change direction.” That assertion, as a colleague pointed out, is flawed because ocean liners change direction every day — they have a rudder that helps them do so.

For Jackson State, that rudder comes in the form of disruptive innovation. Assembling a cyber learning initiative, the school outfitted all students with iPads and access to digital content through partnerships with Apple, Words & Numbers and the Shodor Foundation. As a result, textbook costs were lowered for students by over 90%. An incentive structure sees departments passing savings to students and students moving through department content faster.

A push to change bureaucracy at UT-Austin

With Project 2021, the University of Texas at Austin set out to rethink first- and second-year undergraduate education. James Pennebaker, the Regents Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts, said the project was focused on changing the university’s bureaucracy in such a way that the project won't be necessary in five years. Project 2021 has three primary focuses: Changing the way classes are taught, changing how research is conducted and changing how the institution thinks about student involvement. Among the efforts: A faculty innovation center where new teaching methods can be tested and measured, and a focus on increasing a sense of belonging to prevent dropouts.

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