What are They Thinking?

The confluence of two recent activities has me reflecting on a question I’ve sometimes heard sometimes voiced myself … what are they thinking?

First, I’ve been preparing for the pre-conference workshop that Quality Matters (@QMProgram) asked me to facilitate at its upcoming annual conference (#QMconf2016).  The workshop’s overarching purpose is to help individuals who lead online learning and innovation units be successful in making their case to senior administrators for new proposals, initiatives, and resources. The target audience is individuals such as directors of distance education, department chairs, instructional designers and technologists, and other mid-level distance educators.

In preparation, I conducted an informal snap poll of higher ed online learning and innovation professionals, and asked about the barriers they encountered in garnering approval for their proposals. Of the 71 individuals who responded, roughly 90% indicated that an understanding of and access to senior leadership has been a barrier to the approval of their proposals. 94% of respondents indicated that their understanding the factors of interest to senior decision makers, and a lack of understanding of on the part of senior decision makers were barriers to achieving approval for their proposals. 80% indicated that their limited access to senior decision makers was also an obstacle. In short … what are senior leaders thinking?

Second, last week I served as a panelist for the Digital Learning Council Simulation of the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (#IELOL), co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (@OLCToday) and Penn State University’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning (@psucoil). The simulation provides IELOL participants with the opportunity to present a proposal to senior institutional leaders, and receive both a critical analysis of the proposal’s elements and constructive feedback from such leaders. The overarching suggestions from our panel of twelve can provide some insight into the question … what are senior leaders thinking?

As a senior leader, here’s my brain dump of my overarching questions when considering proposals:

  1. Purpose:  a) What’s the purpose, reason, and goal of the project? b) What problem are we trying to solve, what change are we trying to affect, what advancement are we trying to achieve? c) Why would we want to do this? What is the strategic, operational, and/or moral imperative?
  2. Impact:  a) What are the direct/tangible and indirect/intangible benefits? To student access, success, retention, timely degree completion, and gainful employment? To institutional effectiveness, efficiency, cost savings, revenue generation, reputation, brand? To the internal community of faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni, and to the broader external community and partnerships? How will the project and its intended outcomes impact the institution’s accreditations? b) What are the wider impacts beyond the intended goals? c) What are the possible unintended negative consequences, on the proposal’s target and other elements of the institution?
  3. Costs:  a) What are the direct/tangible and indirect/intangible costs? In dollars, human power, time and effort, technology and facilities usage? To perceptions, morale, reputation, awareness, and brand? b) Is there another way that the goal can be accomplished? Can the goal be achieved with less or shared resources, or in less time with less effort or human power? Can this be added to, or an extension of, another project, operation, or set of responsibilities?
  4. Execution:  a) Who will be involved in and impacted by the project, in its planning, execution, assessment, sustainability, and outcomes? b) What is the timeline for planning, launch, assessment/evaluation, and when we might first begin to see the impact of the project? c) What else can’t we do if this proposal is funded? From what other activities will dollars, people, time, and effort be diverted to support this proposal? d) Are the project’s activities sustainable under the proposed and likely future conditions and levels of funding? e) Does the project provide the opportunity to explore creative, instructive, relevant, adaptable, interoperable, or new models for other situations and problems?
  5. Assessment:  a) What data and research indicate that the project is needed, has validity, is feasible, and has a reasonable chance of success? b) What other institutions or groups have already tried this and what was their experience? c) What will be our measures and indicators of success? Consider quantitative and qualitative aspects, direct and indirect indicators, leading and lagging indicators, external benchmarks and internal targets. d) What’s the assessment and evaluation plan; who is accountable for the project? e) What’s the return on investment (ROI)? f) Are there interim milestones of success, and can they stand alone and be sustained in the absence of completion of the full project? g) How and when will we know if the project is unsuccessful? Are their opportunities for mid-course corrections and adjustments? How should we proceed if the project is not successful?
  6. Risks:  a) What are the risks associated with approving this proposal? Preventable and foreseeable, unpredictable and uncontrollable, internal and external risks? Strategic, operational, financial, compliance, and reputational risks? Appearances and perceptions, systemic and localized, organizational effectiveness, morale, and governance risks? b) What is the overall level of risk, determined by using a Risk Assessment Matrix – insignificant, low, moderate, high, or extreme? c) How will we handle specific potential problems and scenarios? 4) What are the potential risks and costs if we don’t approve and pursue the project? For students, other members of the university community, and the institution?

So now I ask you … as a current or aspiring senior leader, what are you thinking? 

 

Field of View

These days I find myself reading a fair amount about cross-over ideas and adjacent perspectives. The basic premise is that when a body of knowledge or practice from an adjacent field crosses over to another field unexpected breakthroughs can occur. Following fields outside your comfort zone can challenge existing beliefs.

I know that diverse perspectives and cross-functional teams are critical to moving forward, but this recent set of readings are telling me that I need to look further afield. John Maxwell reminds us that “there’s a gap between where we stand, and where we’re trying to go” and “we have to be aware of this space and prudent when crossing it.” So I’m thinking about where I stand, where I’m going, and filling the gap in between.

First, where I stand. Higher ed and specifically the areas of academic change and innovation; online, distance, professional, post-traditional, and continuing education; and the alignment of higher ed with workplace, economic development, and community needs.

I follow practices in a bunch of adjacent sectors – K12 education, science education, entrepreneurship, business, management, leadership, marketing, social media, and the life sciences. Following these fields has been useful and productive. But in some I find the usefulness is waning. The lessons are becoming redundant and the breakthroughs they yield for me are less impactful.

So I’m looking at three new areas to follow to energize a breakthrough mindset:

1. Learning Science: I know, this seems like it’s already in my wheelhouse. It should be, but ironically it’s not. Despite having been a faculty member, one who’s developed new programs and courses, and one who’s led the adoption of differentiated teaching, learning, and delivery models for varied student segments … I know next to nothing about the inner workings of how we learn. Sure, I know about preferred learning styles, successful study and learning strategies, and pedagogical and delivery models and institutional factors that contribute to student learning. But about what happens in the brain to achieve learning … I know nothing.

This is a huge gap and I suspect that the same is true for many of my colleagues. I need to follow learning and cognitive science to kick my work up a notch! How can I best support student learning if I don’t have a grasp on our evolving understanding of how we learn at the cellular and molecular levels? And having originally trained in the life sciences I’m looking forward to getting back to my roots – bonus!

2. Information Science: I recently attended the 2016 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference and sessions on the Internet of Things (IoT) the use of analytics in higher ed. They’ve set me to thinking on the micro level about how the activity tracking device I’m wearing integrates with the IoT, and on a macro level about how information is collected, classified, manipulated, analyzed, shared, understood, and used. There’s little doubt that growing use of analytics in higher ed has great potential to enhance student success. But increasingly I find myself asking: Are we looking at the appropriate situational data? Do the users of analytics have the required and appropriate level of data literacy? And how can we capture, consider, and use qualitative, anecdotal, and non-traditional data with the same efficiency and effectiveness as quantitative data?

It’s estimated that there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020, and on average each person will own and use 8 such devices. Together they have the ability to sense and communicate, and to produce, share, and integrate data. The scale, capabilities, and potential impact on teaching and learning nudge me to learn more. As with the application of any educational technology, the use of IoT devices should be driven by their pedagogical value rather than their whiz-bang appeal. Just as we think about how to move from the lower to higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, in using IoT devices how will we move students from the lower to higher levels of the knowledge pyramid: sense – data – information – knowledge – wisdom?

3. Agile Software Development: No, I’m not planning to become a software engineer. I’m intrigued, though, by the processes involved in agile software development. Its core concepts are iterative development, risk management, and transparency intended to produce quick and collaborative results. These principles might provide a framework for experimentation within a risk-adverse, complex, and tradition-bound higher ed system. I’m curious how agile processes can be harnessed to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems in higher ed. How can academic and administrative experiments can be conducted for the purpose of solving big overarching problems in low stakes but meaningful ways, and by means that are both within and separate from the current structures and flow of our institutions?

So now I ask you … What cross-over ideas and adjacent perspectives are you following, and are they far enough afield to nurture a breakthrough mindset?

First Steps in Design Thinking

Just finished my first design thinking class in the Design Thinking and Innovation Specialization program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  So its time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far.

What’s design thinking? It’s a framework for solving complex problems and creating new and innovative ideas, using a human-centered, exploratory, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approach.  I haven’t yet worked my way through the full process yet, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Spend time problem finding. In design thinking, there’s just as much emphasis on finding and defining problems as on solving them. Look at what presents itself as the problem in a broader sense and reframe it. (For example, instead of thinking about a better design for a particular table lamp, think about a better way to illuminate a room.) Ask and explore whether the problem that has presented itself is the real problem, or whether there’s more overarching, underlying, and adjacent problems. Identify not just the obvious root causes, but also the less obvious and less direct causes. Think about the direct and tangential opportunities to be achieved by solving the problem. This isn’t as easy as it may sound. It took me some time and practice to allow my mind time and space to wander away from the immediate and apparent problem at hand.

2. Don’t jump to solutions. This one is hard for me, really hard. Design thinking asks us to think first about the general criteria (characteristics) that an ideal model or solution would embody. Inherent in this approach is the principle that many different models or solutions can meet the criteria. In class, I found myself going immediately to a particular solution. What I needed to do was back up and think about what made that particular solution (or other possible solutions) an ideal approach. (Following my example about room lighting, the ideal criteria would sufficient lighting by which to read. There’s a number of possible lighting solutions that would fit that criteria, including more table lamps, placement of table lamps, overhead lighting, bulb wattage, dimmer switches, and clamp on book lights, to name a few.)

Focusing first on such general criteria removes the proverbial boxes and lines which often hem in our problem solving. Because the general criteria allow for multiple solutions, they provide wide latitude for creative thinking in the later stages of ideation (i.e. brainstorming possible solutions). This approach requires (at least for me) patience in not immediately jumping to resolution and developing a level of comfort with ambiguity, knowing that there’s possibly more than one ideal solution to the problem.

3. A better way to move forward. I’ll admit that before I knew much about design thinking I thought … big deal … I know how to solve problems. My standard method, the traditional method used by many, was akin to that of a surgical strike. Get in, identify the problem or challenge as it presented itself, do a quick and straightforward assessment of the root cause, design a solution that addressed the cause, and get out. I’m reflecting on how that method compares to design thinking, and I’m wondering whether I’ve been approaching problem solving and designing new models in the best way possible. My old method worked, but perhaps the results weren’t as robust as they could have been.

Done well, design thinking is a blended of analytical approaches, creative thinking, and collaboration among diverse perspectives. It provides a set of tools to capitalize on each, and release the potential to be found in their combination. It can unearth previously unknown problems, reveal new opportunities for growth, and unlock innovation solutions and new directions. Design thinking translates well to higher education, and has been used to address its complex issues and approaches to e-learning. Perhaps in using the traditional straight-forward approach to solving problems and developing new models opportunities were lost … the opportunities for fruitful and wide-ranging impact and advances that design thinking affords.

How well is your current process working for you?

 

Interested in learning more about design thinking?

 

Relearning Learning

Twenty plus years under my belt in support of nontraditional students and online education, but this is the first time that I’m walking the talk. I’m back in school and find myself among the large and growing number of nontraditional students in the U.S higher education system. I was last formally enrolled in 1987. This week I’m finishing my first class in twenty nine years and I find myself reflecting on how much learning has changed on a personal level. So, some observations from myself the higher ed student to myself the higher ed professional …

First, I’m struck by the amount of student-generated content in my class. The up-side is that this trend provides me with a diverse set of content perspectives and applications. And it comes directly to me from my fellow students, I don’t have to go looking for it. The down-side is the amount of time I find myself investing in such content. Sure, the volume of plays a role, but that’s not the main factor that increases my time.

Thirty plus years ago, the content and learning materials were curated and provided almost solely by the faculty member. As such, there was an implicit trust in the validity, relevance, and accuracy of that content and materials. (Although I do remember one textbook, written by the faculty member, that was rife with errors.) No offense intended to my classmates, but I don’t have that same level of trust in the content they’ve generated. I find myself spending lots of time critically reviewing, assessing, and curating their content. Yes, as a former faculty member I see the value in this … my level of critical engagement with the content is much greater now that in days or yore. But man, it takes time … a lot of time … time that I did not expect. My hope is that with time I’ll become more efficient in this process and learn to have more confidence in peer-generated content.

Second, technology is not only ubiquitous, it often drives the when, where, and how of what I learn. The obvious is worth stating … were it not for the convenience of online education, I would not be able to enroll in a program only available to me from a university located at a significant distance, or to go to school while holding down a demanding job and a busy travel schedule. No way, no how, could I do it.

What’s struck me about the technology, is the ways in which digital teaching and learning have impacted how I learn. Time has taught me that I learn best when I scribble, hand write notes, and draw diagrams. While not realizing it then, these are the strategies that made me a successful student. I wrote notes on top of my hand written lecture notes, I overlaid notes on the diagrams in the textbooks, and I drew my own diagrams. Now, the content world comes to me digitally on a screen – I can’t write or draw on it. Yes, I can download and type inserted notes. But trust me, I’ve tried, for me it doesn’t have the same impact as hand writing the notes. And as much as I love content in the form of diagrams, pictures, and videos, increasingly it can’t be easily downloaded and printed for my old-style notation purposes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking digital teaching and learning. I’m still a big proponent, and I’m looking forward to the new affordances that evolving technologies will provide for education. I’m just back from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference, where a discussion of the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and 2016 Horizon Report provide some glimpses into what these new opportunities might be. What I didn’t expect when I went back to school, is just how much I would have to adapt my old style learning tricks to the digital world. I’m making progress, but I need to re-learn how to learn. Now, where’s my spiral note book and yellow highlighter?  (Old habits die hard.)

Valued Partners

As I prepare for the start of the ELI conference (#ELI2016) in a few hours, I’m reminded again of the importance and value of diverse networks and good collaborators in driving innovation. Not only are my perspectives enriched and broadened, but collectively we can accelerate the rate of progress. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of many successful collaborative groups over the years, but right now two are top of mind.

First, is the Collective for Academic Innovation and Transformation (CAIT). We’re an ad hoc group composed of MJ Bishop (@DrMJBishop) of the Univ System of Maryland’s Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, Alan Girelli (@AlanGirelli) of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in eLearning at the Univ of Massachusetts Boston, Larry Ragan (@LCR1) of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State Univ, Lisa Stephens (@SailorStephens) of the SUNY System, and myself (@CMSax) of Academic Outreach and Innovation at Shippensburg Univ (@ShipPCDE).

We began eighteen months ago with the idea of finding a way to consistently tag our individual institutional faculty research and development seed grants. We now find ourselves with a robust matrix (the CAIT Matrix; #CAITmatrix; CAIT Matrix website) that can be used not only for the original intended purpose, but also to link similarly-focused individuals and projects across institutions, link projects and grants to national initiatives and funding sources, and drive innovation. In addition, our group has now become a community which shares opportunities and learning with each other on an ongoing basis … this team is a treasure!

Check out our presentation and slides for the 2016 ELI conference (#ELI2016).  We welcome your feedback about the CAIT Matrix!

Second, is the Southcentral Pennsylvania Education Collaborative (SPEC). We’re a regional network of fourteen PK20 educational institutions – ten school districts, one career and technology center, two intermediate units, and Shippensburg University. Our purpose is to engage in activities designed to meet the common STEM education and technology-enhanced education needs of our students, teachers, and faculty. I’ve had the very good fortune to co-found and co-lead this group with Chris Royce (@CARoyce), Chair of the Teacher Education Department at Shippensburg Univ and a nationally recognized STEM education expert.

SPEC also formed eighteen months ago, and together we’ve engaged in a peer exchange among PK12 teachers and university teacher education faculty, developed two PK12 teacher workshops focused on integrating science and literature, and ESL instructional strategies, and have submitted grants to fund future educational activities. Right now we’re working on a May event – Tech Day in the Valley. Really looking forward to this BYOD event … not quite a conference, not quite an EdCamp … but definitely a day of teachers learning from one another about using all sorts of devices in teaching and learning. Through this work I’ve learned much about the PK12 world, and have often been struck by how far ahead some are in educational technology … this is a sector to watch!

The work of CAIT and SPEC could perhaps have been done independently. But, the diversity of thought has made the work stimulating, the critical mass has accelerated the path to outcomes, and the camaraderie has made it fun!  Thanks, folks, for being part of my “mastermind group“!