Into the Basement of the Higher Education Innovation Haunted Mansion at HAIL Storm 2018

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I can’t say that I consistently live this teaching, but I value it. It is part of why I share candid, idiosyncratic, under-developed, rough draft ideas and projects online. Scan a random sample of my 1000+ online articles and you will find ample inconsistencies, false starts, over-zealous goals that fizzled before having something substantive to show for them, along with a few wins and accomplishments. Look carefully and you will find an article where I share what I called my un-resume, a long list of failures and underwhelming moments in life. Why would I share such things with the public? Be assured that there is even more that I don’t share, but as I gain the courage and weigh the risks, I strive to offer such a public record because it is something that I’ve long sought from others.

Growing up, I saw people who intrigued me, did what I wanted to do, reached a milestone that I hoped to reach one day, and/or who inspired me in some way. I saw their titles, feats, polished accomplishments, published works, and I read stories of their achievements. Only, I wanted to see how they got there. I longed to know the stories behind the stories, the struggles, fears, failures, and crossroads moments. I wanted to know about their flaws and limitations and how they managed them, how they pushed through the down times, whether they struggled with moments of doubt or depression and how they didn’t let such things consume them. I wanted to know about the hard times that also turned into important lessons. Then, amid all of that, I wanted to hear those stories of achievement once again.

Recently, I had a very brief visit to Disney World. A group of us went through the Haunted Mansion. In room after room, we saw translucent figures floating about. Many get that experience of the Haunted Mansion, but not what I saw next. Afterward, our guide took us on a second tour, this time a side door that took us into the basement of that same mansion. Walking in partial darkness between the carefully marked glowing lines on the floor, we were given a glimpse behind the scenes. I saw boxes stacked in corners, unimpressive plywood constructions, and other sights that resembled more of what you might expect in a storage unit or old barn. As we continued, we found ourselves beneath the public exhibit in one of the rooms, a behind the scenes view of the ghosts and ghouls. Only now we saw mirrors, lights, props, and human-like figures.

When I went on the first tour, I was impressed and amused. Walking out of that second tour, I was more inspired and informed. I could envision working with a team to creating our own haunted mansion. That is the same sort of thing that I longed for over the years as I looked at mentors, role models, and others from whom I hoped to learn. I can be impressed and engaged by the polish and public side of accomplishments, but that real and raw behind the scenes view is something that points me to more of a roadmap. While we sometimes face missions and challenges in life that do not seem to have much of a roadmap, getting the raw view of other’s journey can be used to build both competence and confidence.

I’m writing this as I sit in the Hollywood/Burbank Airport, leaving from a professional development experience that I would equate with a tour of the Haunted Mansion basement. HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) Storm was a small gathering of 35 people who are passionate about higher education innovation with a purpose. Only we didn’t gather for a typical conference experience. Instead, unlike any professional development experience in my higher education career, this was a time to hear the stories behind the story, to speak candidly about successes, challenges, developing ideas, and yes, even some of our failures. As such, I head home inspired and informed, a little more confident to pursue new possibilities, a bit more emboldened to persist through failures and challenges, and committed to lean even further into mission-minded educational innovation.

Eggs, Spring & the Kairos for Educational Innovation

Timing matters. Kairos matters. On the first day of spring, my wife asked where she could find our level. She was checking the kitchen counter to see if it was adequately level for something that can only be done one day a year, balancing an uncooked egg on one of its two points. As you can see from the image, it worked, and it was a moment of fun, celebration and even a few commemorative photo opportunities.

Of course, it didn’t take long before I had to ponder the implications of this event for educational innovation. Once I started thinking about it, I remembered a Greek word that I’d learned years ago, kairos. As I recall, there are two words for time in Greek. The first is chronos. As you might suspect, this relates to chronological time. Kairos is the other. Instead of looking at time in terms of chronology, kairos is concerned with the nature of the time. . .the due season or opportune time. It is that moment when the conditions come together for something special to happen.

For those of us from the Christian tradition, we might use this word kairos to describe the incredible combination of events that came together in the birth of Christ, also the culminating events that many of us just remembered and celebrated on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In fact, there is a wonderful book that first introduced me to these ideas called In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. It describes the many conditions that came together, resulting in the kairos for the coming of Christ. The Roman roadways allowed for people to travel more broadly. A more common language throughout the empire also allowed for ideas to spread. Add many others and it becomes easy to see how it was indeed the karios.

As I stared at this egg standing on its end, a sense of accomplishment even though it was all due to the thought and persistence of my wife plus the right conditions. I wondered about the kairos for educational innovation. I wondered about the ideas and the people who conceive of them, share them, and create something based upon them. It isn’t just having the right idea. It is also the right idea at the right time. . .under the right series of conditions.

I think of many interesting open concept experiments in education back in the 1970s and 1980s, and recall how so many people critiqued them as unrealistic—the main cause of their failure according to many. Yet, no small number of these ideas have returned with far more favorable results today. I consider, for example, Malcolm Knowles ideas about self-directed learning to be quite powerful in their day, but they are gaining renewed interest and more traction than ever today. Why? It is because  the nature and demands of life in a digital, increasingly open, and connected world amplify his ideas. Self-direction has become a key differentiator among people. It is a massive advantage in more contexts today than it was when it was first written about decades ago. In addition, the tools of the digital age have made it easier than ever to access and shape one’s own learning, especially learning beyond the walls and structure of formal schooling. The conditions are right for the idea of self-directed learning to take root and grow.

Some ideas are ahead of their time. The conditions are not right for them to take root in a given context. As such, there is wisdom in not being too quick to dismiss an idea as permanently and absolutely ineffective. There is also wisdom in recognizing that a great idea might not be a great idea for your specific school or this specific time. The conditions might not be right.

With time and effort, sometimes we can help shape many conditions, but that is usually no small effort. It might be as simple as moving to a place where the conditions are right. It could also be a persistent and concerted effort to discover the right conditions and then to help create them.

I’ve met many who learned about a promising idea or innovation and sought to bring it back their organization, only to find that it is not well-received or that they were unable to make it work the way they had hoped. There are many potential reasons for this, but one important question is about the kairos. Are the conditions right for this to happen? If not, how might I create those conditions or is it best to wait until they are here?

I also recognize that these things are more easily recognized in hindsight. These can be complex matters; it is not always easy to tell which conditions are essential or important. Sometimes we just need to give it a try and see what happens. Other times a more cautious approach is prudent. Either way, timing and conditions matters in educational innovation.

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What Compels People to Pursue Radical Innovations in Education

What compels people to pursue more radical innovations in education? It has now been almost two decades since I started to more seriously and systematically study innovations in education and innovative learning organizations. Many of the musings about that show up in the chapters of my book on Missional Moonshots (not to mention the many articles on this blog), but since my exploration started, I can’t think of a single day that has passed without some thought experiment or reflection about educational innovation. In that sense, it has become a consuming passion for me because I see educational innovation as an important social good, and I have immense respect for those who tap into the courage, creativity and hard work necessary to pursue revolutionary or radical innovations in education.

As such, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about what compels people to pursue such innovations. What is it that happens inside or outside of people that draws, drives or inspires them to get off the paved roads of legacy education models and frameworks and do the hard work of helping to create completely new roadways? Under what conditions is this more likely to happen for a person? While some of this has to do with how people are wired (both genetically wired and wired through a longstanding set of life experiences), there are other aspects at work as well. That is what leads me to start to put into words some of what I’ve seen. Amid many observations, conversations, formal and informal interviews, and my study of educational innovators and entrepreneurs, the following six consistently show up as conditions that often catapult people into trying something more radical in the education space.

When there is nothing to lose or you have little stake or loyalty to the established system.

This doesn’t need to be an objective statement. You might, from many perspectives, have a great deal to lose. What matters, however, is that you believe that you have little to lose, or perhaps that you do not have a strong sense of loyalty to the existing system. You might (or might not) be extremely loyal to the broader mission or goals, but not necessarily the system or current methods. Perhaps the system failed you. Perhaps it was never that important to you. Perhaps you are coming from outside of the system and looking at it with fresh eyes. Regardless, this is a significant entry point for some who pursue what others might consider more radical or revolutionary innovations.

While some critique educational innovators who don’t have longstanding experience in the classroom, it is sometimes this outsider-ness that allows them to think and act in what others might consider more radical ways. In fact, some don’t even see or think that their innovation is all that radical. Feeling like an outsider might be unpleasant for some of us or a source of pride for others. Either way, it can drive us to look at the context from a unique (or at least less common) perspective. We are willing and able to consider possibilities censored or disregarded by insiders. We are open to possibilities that others reject because they would have too much to lose by such possibilities.

When there is no other option but the mission is still important to you.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, right? Or, as John Kotter points out in much of his work, a “sense of urgency” can be a powerful lever for change and innovation. If there is no other option and you lack a compelling mission, innovation is less likely. Or, if you have mistakenly glued the mission and your current practices together, no longer able to see that they are indeed separate elements, you may rather shut down, learn to live in persistent failure, or use denial to avoid the intense pain of current failure instead of looking for alternatives and innovations. Yet, when one sees that the mission is compelling and separate from what is currently being done, and the option of staying the course is no longer an option, this is enough to move some people to lead or embrace revolutionary innovations in education.

When you experience a compelling alternative.

Sometimes people are stuck in educational ruts simply because they are not aware of the alternatives. Yet, when they see them, when they experience them firsthand and work through some of their doubts and questions, this is enough for some to venture into more radical changes. It is why I advocate so strongly that people at least take the time to get informed about the possibilities, even if they don’t choose to embrace any of them.

When your passion for the goal and/or mission far exceeds your fear of loss, discomfort or failure.

There are plenty of us who have many radical or more revolutionary ideas. It is just that our fear keeps us in check, we are not willing to take the associated risks, or the pain and discomfort associated with the change is not tolerable to us at the time. Yet, for many who do embrace a more radical educational pathway, it happens when their passion for the goal or mission grows to such a level that it overshadows these others. Or, we find ourselves in a life circumstance where we’ve been able to minimize some of these risks enough that we are then willing to venture out into the less knoswn or unknown.

When you are deeply connected to or convinced of the minority opinion, situation or a specific need.

There are winners and losers in the dominant education system. When you are connected to those in the system who are on the losing end and you care deeply about those people, this can be enough to move to you to bold and new actions. It is not a coincidence that many parents are active innovators in the charter school system throughout the United States. Interview founders of innovative charters and independent schools and you will find compelling stories, often about their own children. Love and concern for another person (family member or not) is a fuel for more radical innovations in education.

When the vision or dream is too strong to deny or delay.

I’ve heard from this from many educational innovators. They sometimes thought, planned and dreamed for years or decades. Finally, at some point, the conditions were right but they also got to a point where they just could not wait. They had invested so much of themselves into the idea that they just had to do something about it. So they acted. Sometimes they have a vision for the impending doom if we continue down the standard path and they’ve reached a point where it is so urgent (internally), that they just need to do something. In other cases, it is just that they want it to happen so much and all the years of thought and emotion create a tipping point toward action.

Interview innovators in education, and you are likely to find one or more of these six answers at work. There are many others as well, but these six are among the more common and transparent. These are the kind of things that compel people to what the rest might consider more radical innovations in education.

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A Virtual Internship Startup That Meets the Needs of Universities & Companies

Part of what I love about my work is simply learning about the many interesting and innovative things that people are doing in the education space. This is sometimes happening with new school startups, intrapreneurs within existing schools, and in classrooms around the world. However, there is so much happening in the education startup world as well, which is part of why I enjoy doing a modest amount of consulting in that space.

At least three or four times a week, I get an email, LinkedIn message, or direct message from one of those education startups, rarely to pitch a product. It is usually just to share ideas back and forth. Perhaps they came across an article that I wrote, one of my videos, or they were at a conference where I was giving a keynote or leading a workshop. Something that I shared connected with their vision or passion, so we follow-up. That is how networking works, right?  Well, this is more true than ever in the digital age.

A couple of weeks ago, one such conversation happened with Michael Quigley, co-founder of Promazo, and I’m excited to tell you a bit more about it. I apologize in advance to Michael and his colleagues if I misrepresent anything here, but here is what I heard and what excited me about what they are doing.

When it comes to higher education, we know that hands-on and real world experience are both powerful. First, it is an incredible way to learn real world skills. Second, it adds something to student’s resumes so, upon graduation, they are not applying to a job with absolutely not tested experience in a given field. Third, if helps students discover whether a given type of work aligns with their gifts and abilities. Fourth, if helps students understand the relevance of what they are learning in classes that would otherwise come off as abstract and disconnected from the rest of life. Finally, by being tested with real world projects, students get a better sense of their strengths and limitations. They can learn to build on their strengths, reduce their limitations, and fill in gaps along the way. As such, they start to take more ownership in their learning and personal development.

With such a long list of benefits, it would seem that internships are a no-brainer for college students. They are great ways to gain that real world experience, get to know themselves, apply their learning, build their resumes and more. Yet, there are geographic limitations to internships during the regular school year. Transportation can be a challenge for some students. And, given all the other responsibilities in college, it can be a challenge to fit an internship into that schedule. When we can make them happen (especially during breaks from school), these immersive, in-person internships can be tremendous. However, in the absence of that, is there anything else that can be done?

This is where I was excited to learn about Promazo and see what they are doing. As I talked to co-founder Michael Quiqley, they aspire to revolutionize the way students find jobs and the way employers find (and keep) top talent. Since much work is moving to become more virtual, why can’t internships be virtual as well? Promazo will work with companies to find a project that could benefit from interns. This is not the “go get me coffee type of internship.” It is real work that addresses real needs and has real deadlines. Promazo then works to find a group of University students at a given campus, assembles them as a project team, manages the project, and guides this team of students from project start to completion, sometimes even concluding with an in-person pitch of their product at the company headquarter.

They launched this idea with 7 college students working on a project for IBM. Now they have over 300 students at schools like Georgetown, Harvard, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, and Notre Dame involved in these virtual internships for an impressive collection of well-known and well-respected companies.

There are countless benefits to this beyond what I’ve already mentioned, but consider these three. First, these are paid internships during the academic year, so this is real work that replaces what might otherwise be traditional campus jobs. This is better pay and more real world experience. Second, this is a great recruiting tool for these companies. They get a peek into the skills of these interns which can easily turn into a new job for a recent graduate and new, promising talent for the company. Third, this is a model that doesn’t depend on extensive work or coordination from the University. Promazo does much of the work, while giving the University a great internship program about which they can boast.

This is a solid example of an education startup that has a creative solution for both companies and Universities. They do this while not ignoring the need for a sustainable financial model for themselves. This is a brilliant model for a win-win-win example of educational entrepreneurship. I look forward to seeing how it develops over the upcoming years.

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10 Ways to Infuse A Spirit of Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Your Learning Organization

In Bold, Peter Diamandis and Stven Kolter wrote, “If you don’t disrupt yourself someone else will.” I don’t treat this as an absolute, but it is a proverbial truth. The eduction space is one of tremendous innovation and entrepreneurship today. This doesn’t mean abandoning every practice or tradition, and given that education is a collective social good, it doesn’t even mean that every learning organization needs to be deeply innovative and entrepreneurial. There is plenty of room for different types of learning organizations in the K-12 and higher education, and also in the massive education space beyond these formal organizations. With that said, if you aspire to be an innovative and entrepreneurial organization, it probably means making a few changes. Following are ten tips. They are not a recipe for innovation. There are plenty of ways to nurture a culture of innovation. However, in my work with various learning organizations and education companies, paying attention to these ten tips is a great start. Each one is not something you just do and check off a list. Each one takes time, organizational and individual soul-searching, persistence, a thick skin, and a fervent commitment to the task.

1. Celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship.

I’m not talking about just saying it. I mean really celebrate it. Lift it up. Encourage it and back up your encouragement with the resources for people to do it. The top people in the organization need to be behind it. They don’t always need to lead it, but they do not to celebrate it. This means giving people the space to innovative because entrepreneurs and innovators wither with micro-management. They need support, encouragement, celebration, and empowerment.

2. Hire or raise up people who are passionate about being deeply informed about the possibilities.

C. E. M. Joad wrote that, “The height of originality is skill in concealing origins.” Ideation and innovation are both fueled by a deep and broad sense of the possibilities. There is a certain breed of person that craves exploring and discovering the possibilities. Sometimes they just seem obsessed with discovering diverse sources, models, examples, and frameworks. They read, observe, connect… They are building this deep well of insights from which they can pull when they begin to innovate. These are valuable people to have around if you want a culture of innovation. When it comes to the education space, we are talking about finding people who are not just interested in replicating and imitating what other organizations do. Look for people who can keep the mission of your organization in focus, but they explore the world for ideas, some of which might have an interesting application in your organization.

3. Match your entrepreneurs, innovators and edupreneurs with people who love being part of innovation but are great at making things happen and attending to the details.

If you add detail people who are intimidated, overwhelmed or even defensive about innovation; that will not work out. However, if you can match your innovators with these “get it done and done well” people, watch out! They can be a powerful combination. Sometimes it is the same person, but often (even most often) it is not.

4. Include system thinkers.

When you start to innovate, all sorts of things can be affected. It is extremely valuable to have people who understand all parts of the operation instead of just an organization full of specialists. If you find an innovator who is also a systems thinker, grab them and empower them. These systems thinkers don’t just think about how one thing impacts another in the organization. These people get under the hood. They want to know all aspects of the operation. They don’t just play or dabble. They dig deep, while not mistaking their digging for full-scale expertise. They can be critical resources in understanding what will work and what will not, or how to work toward conditions where something new can work. Oftentimes, the organization obsessed with specialists and tidy divisions of labor miss the wisdom of these system thinkers with disastrous results. These people see things that others just don’t get, and if they have a track record of using their capacity for systems thinking to get things done well, trust them with it.

5. Embrace wonderfully lopsided people, giving them freedom to grow their strengths…while helping to minimize or manage their limitations.

Especially in some education organizations, there can be this idolatry of the well-rounded person..the employee equivalent of the student who got straight “As” in all subjects, played multiple sports, and was loved by everyone. If you only look for those people, you are going to miss out on some world-class talent. Some of the best people in the world in various domains are what I call “wonderfully lopsided.” They have a huge strength. They build on it and use it to do extraordinary things. They also have gaps and limitations. You can focus on those limitations or you can embrace the whole person and then help them manage the limitations while letting them do amazing things in the organization with their strengths. Keep pushing them back to working on their weaknesses and you risk preventing them from creating their next masterpiece.

6. Create spaces for freedom, experimentation and exploration.

This means freedom from something. That something is often the standard way of doing things, the expected way of doing things, standard practice and policy, and sometimes even the “acceptable” way of doing things. Let them experiment. Learning organizations often don’t do this well because they cut their teeth on a culture of earning and a fixed mindset. Experiments have uncertain results, which is why they are called experiments. If you want innovation, then you need to have a tolerance and celebration of experimentation. This doesn’t have to mean multi-million dollar experiments. You can manage risks at reasonable and tolerable level, and that will vary depending upon your organizational culture. Without experimentation you will probably not get much world-class innovation.  Sometimes it takes months or years to benefit from these experiments but if you have the resources and patience, they can pay huge dividends.

7. Remove fear and uncertainty associated with top-down power moves and changing the rules in the middle of the game.

Fear can be a motivator, but threats, top-down power plays and top-down changes behind closed doors will kill the motivation and energy of most innovators and entrepreneurs. If you are committed to running your organization this way, you will lose some of your top talent. You’ll keep the rule followers. You’ll keep the people who are happy just following directives from above. You’ll lose your innovators and entrepreneurs almost every time. Imagine playing a game of chess and someone jumps in and starts pulling some of your pieces off the board, forcing you to play without them. Then they start changing the rules of the game on you. That sort of unpredictability will squash the spirit of innovative people and teams.

8. Ignore the “Equal Treatment” mindset of some organizations.

This is a difficult one for some people to handle, but the “equal treatment” myth is just that. Treating all people and units the same is not equal because they don’t all need the same things. In addition, your organization will need to invest in promising ideas and people who are working on the next innovation. Find ways to fund, support and empower those people. The more you can do to help the rest of the organization see the wisdom and importance of this, the better. This often means giving some freedom and flexibility to do things that might not usually be done, that might not fit in the standard policies and practices. There is a careful line to draw here. Some things are non-negotiable, but be flexible with the rest.

8. Don’t expect the innovators and entrepreneurs to color within the lines.

This relates to #7, but if you want to embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, this means realizing that these people often don’t color within the lines. That can be a challenge because coloring between the lines was pretty much invented in schools.

9. Sift everything through the mission and vision, but be open to interesting twists and improvisations around the mission and vision.

This is where we draw the lines with the  non-negotiables. The mission, vision, values and goals that are core to the organization need to be standard for all people. Even (especially) the innovators need to respect, embrace, and innovate around these. At the same time, they might put fascinating and surprising twists on what that mission looks like, especially if we allow them the freedom from some of the traditional trappings while holding them to sifting everything through these core elements.

10. Partner, network, connect, beg, borrow, and steal (in the flattering, not illegal sense); but beware of disengaged outsourcing.

Outsourcing part of your operation can be an effective strategy at times, but stay deeply engaged. Learn all you can. You want to build intellectual capital for the future. Even with that (and as I and others have written or said many times before), some of the best people in the world are not in your organization. So, partner, connect, and network with those people. At minimum, try to learn from the best people, organizations, and innovations in the world.

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Advice to Learning Oranizations: Be Yourself and More of that Self

What does a school, University or learning organization need do to grow and thrive in the future of education? Follow my blog enough and you will read a dozen answers to that, but here is one that you haven’t heard from me before. We need learning organizations that are “all in” on being themselves, but the best and most distinct version of that self. This is not advice to ignore all promising trends and emerging practices. There are times to embrace and assimilate new practices, but there are also times to kindly pass on a trend because it is not you.

I realize that some people will misread that first paragraph, thinking that this is an invitation for the Sweet Briar Colleges of the world to refuse any changes that might give them a fighting chance to survive and even thrive, but it isn’t that. In my consulting, visiting and learning from different organizations; it has become clearer to me when an organization really knows itself. This is because a person who really knows himself or herself tends to have this interesting blend of rigidity and a willingness to explore the possibilities. It allows one to explore the other with this delightful dispassionate curiosity. You can even experiment and explore with new options while staying grounded in who you are, your core values and identity. It might baffle some and frustrate others, but it makes sense to you and you stay the course.

Those organizations that do not have a strong sense of their collective identity are the ones that either blow in the wind or stand firm, fists clenched, like a stubborn child standing between a tornado and his beloved sandbox. The wind blowers float from one trend to another, hoping they can stay in the air longer or maybe soar above all the others. The stubborn children clings to traditions, practices and policies with religious fervor, ready to close their doors for good instead of making the slightest adjustments. Or, they remain unchanging, striving to convince themselves and others about how all the changes around them are over-stated, over-rated, and unworthy of our serious attention or consideration. “Ahh. That isn’t a tornado! That is just a strong wind.” Often enough, they throw some strong moral language, righteous anger or intellectual disgust into their statements, just enough to add some extra resolve and derogate the other. To add some humility to what I’m writing, allow me to confess that I’ve been the wind blower and the stubborn child, but I still hold up this ideal of the organization that knows itself and holds to that even as it moves into the future.

Maybe this is why I’m drawn to organizations with a distinct flavor. There is no guarantee that people will always favor their flavor, but scanning the contemporary educational landscape, it is a pretty good bet that building on your distinctions is a solid strategy. This is not about resisting change. It is about being who you are and even more of that self. It is about knowing the innovations that amplify, clarify and extend your core identity and values. What this means and looks like with vary by organization, but distinct organizations that know themselves have a way of drawing a following of people who value that identity and share the same values.

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From Degrees to A Lifelong Educational Ecosystem

This is an age of unbundled education and it can be argued that higher education institutions are sleeping giants in this realm. As such, I’ve been grappling with a concept for the past year that I’d like to share with you, one that I suspect represents an emerging shift in the way we think about educational offerings. If this were to gain traction, it could have promising possibilities for everything from workforce development to social entrepreneurship, ongoing professional development to educational credentials.

Let me start by explaining what I mean by unbundling. Where we once thought of formal education as an all or nothing, one size fits all option, we now see many aspects being broken down into discrete elements, providing a buffet of choices. One might choose the free online lectures and content without the degree. Another might opt for a competency-based program that is heavy on assessment and verification of learning leading toward a credential, but it does not have the typical classroom experience. Another might get the credit without the class through a prior learning credit option. Still another might choose computer-based instruction that carefully monitors progress toward mastery, but it may or may not be in the context over an overall school experience. We can have the class and credential without a face-to-face element through online learning. Then there are also a litany of education companies emerging that have unbundled services that previously didn’t exist or were typically an integrated part of a University offering: services ranging from tutoring to educational travel, online study groups to writing help, gap year experiences to college prep services, career services to opportunities for internships. While many such companies have been around for a long time, today we see a rapid expansions of startups and education businesses that provide these and more services.

Why do I call higher education institutions the sleeping giants in the age of unbundled services? It is because flagship higher education institutions are gold mines of expertise in everything from neuroscience to healthcare, public policy to educational research, new product development to international business. Yet, many education businesses emerge in areas where higher education institutions have been less interested in venturing. Colleges and Universities think about research and degree programs as two primary elements, although there are many that have robust continuing education units that have a long and impressive history of a broader spectrum of educational offerings.

With this in mind, I’ve been exploring a concept that seems to have great potential for both higher education institutions and education companies. I refer to it as the life long learning educational ecosystem and wheel of offerings. This is a way of shifting our focus from degree programs to distinct areas of educational influence. The following image illustrates one such ecosystem as an an example. This particular example is focused on an area of personal interest, nurturing educational technology innovators and leaders. Notice how the center of the visual is not a degree in educational technology. Instead, the center is a vision or mission. The goal is to nurture innovators and leaders in the field of education. How we go about that will vary from one person to another. It will depend upon one’s interests, resources, level of expertise, stage of life and work, and much more. As such, a degree is listed as one option. Along side that we have a graduate certificate that is a focused but less expansive offering, one that also might cost less than a full degree. It might serve as a stepping stone to a degree, a stand-alone credential, or an add-on to an existing graduate degree. There there are also offerings that increase access and opportunity like open courses. These might be funnels to recruit students for the degree or certificate, but they are also ways to live out the mission even when people are not in need of a formal credential or do not have the time and resources for the degree or certificate. Continuing around the circle, we also have possible offerings like an 8-day boot camp, perhaps a series of 8 intensive 6-8 hour workshops focused upon key areas for educational innovation. From there we have options like mini-courses (for credit or not), potential coaching and mentoring services for emerging or existing educational leaders, 1- day events or conferences, and unconferences.

FinalAnd for bite-sized insights to help aspiring and emerging educational innovators, there is even a potential offering like a newsletter or blog that highlights promising practices and emerging research. There are hundreds of other spokes that could be added to this wheel of offerings ranging from webinars to Twitter chats, fellowships to online communities. The point is that they work as individual offerings but combine to create a robust set of standalone or stackable learning opportunities. Imagine what would happen if more flagship higher education institutions embraced such a vision for various academic areas of influence. What if more Universities thought of organizing their units around such discipline-specific missions instead of organizing more around degree programs?

I realize that there are many factors that make such a shift unlikely, but if a few sleeping giants in higher education fully embraced such a vision, imagine the potential social benefits. What if we did this with key social challenges and intellectual pursuits? Then what if we did it more formally through partnerships across organizations. There are examples, but they remain isolated and a minority.

The more I follow the trends in education, the more confident I am that such an ecosystem will become increasingly common. What remains unclear is the extent to which this will take place in formal higher education institutions. However, if it were to do so, I suspect that it would quickly silence (or at least muffle) concerns about the future of higher education.


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Global Impact: Dreams, Educational Innovation, Airsickness, & Landing on the Moon

moon-landing-60543_64066 years. That is the time between the Wright Brother’s first flight and the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 66 years is also the time between 2015 and the year they invented the airsickness bags that sit in the pocket in front of you on the plane. While there have been subtle changes to the latter innovation, it pales in comparison to the rapid evolution of first flight to landing on the moon. So, why is it that innovation skyrockets (pun intended) in some areas but gradually develops in others?

1) Capturing the Imagination

The first one compels people to imagine and dream, and that is a powerful lever for innovation. The latter addresses a real need, but who gets excited about designing the next innovation to help capture the result of mid-air emesis? There are probably a few people, but the other was enough to generate completely new fields of study.

2) Meeting a Need or Embarking on an Adventure

We need simple and practical innovations, at least we can and do benefit from them. However, one taps into a thirst for adventure, discovery, and “going boldly where no man has gone before.”

3) Leverage a Broad Community of Innovators Toward A Compelling Vision

The first one is an example of a grand dream, large enough to create an entire community of people who gathered to do something about it. It didn’t start overnight. It came from centuries of musings about flight, and the build up to the moon landing relied on many smaller innovations. It was not just the grand vision of flight. It took a diverse community of innovators who contributed everything from the communication technologies to the work of rocket scientists. Yet, without that central and driving vision, these micro-innovations may have never come together to result in such an accomplishment.

4) Find the the One that Leads

These two innovations that I mentioned go together. Who needs an airsickness bag if you can’t fly? And yet, the innovation around that 66 year-old airsickness bag is not such a small innovation after all, not if you look at the broader problem, that of airsickness. Look at the innovations around motion sickness. Consider antiemetic medicines created over the last half century. Consider the scientific knowledge gained about emesis since the invention of the first airsickness bag. Yet, it is clear that one of these innovations is inspired by a grand dream. The other helps address practical challenges along the way.

Educational Applications

Now what if we apply these simple (and maybe too obvious) lessons to educational innovation. I’ll offer four.

1) Lead with a Grand Dream

Before you start investing in countless tablets, technologies or new models for education; clarify your dream. Is it big? It is worthy of your life’s work? Is it clear and compelling? Is it capable of rallying a group of diverse people to accomplish it? If so, get to work. You might be the one to lay the groundwork of exploring the possibilities. You might be one who helps make one or more of the possibilities a reality. Either way, use what you have to contribute to the dream.

2) Focus on the Grand Goal

It is easy for us to invest the bulk of our energy working on the educational equivalent of airsickness bags, small innovations that make educational life a little more convenient or bearable. In fact, it is possible to spend an entire life doing that without realizing it. Then there are others who are willing to “shoot for the moon,” to dream grand visions of what could be in education, ignoring the naysayers, gaining inspiration from the possibilities and the nobility of the vision, and persistently driving toward that goal. Along the way, you will likely need many of those micro-innovations. Embrace them, learn about them, but keep putting them in the context of the grand goal. As Mark Twain once wrote, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

3) Invite Others to Join You

You don’t get to the moon on your own. The Wright Brothers represent an important step in that direction. So do countless others. Find inspiration, support, and encouragement from a growing group of others who have a shared vision. Many of the grandest innovations in history have this in common. We also see this with some of the boldest visions for education today. They build a small community around this shared vision, and it very often spreads into something bigger.

4) Embrace Your Place

It is hard to tell what role you play on a truly grand vision. Sometimes you are the Da Vinci, sketching out possibilities hundreds of years before they happen. Sometimes you are a pair of brothers building early prototypes inspiring a generation of others who will take your work to an unimaginable next level. Sometimes you are the one building that first rocket. You might be part of the support crew for the first launch. You might also be the first one to step foot on the moon. Sometimes it is hard to tell which one you’ll be. Embrace the dream, commit to the goal, identify and use your gifts in pursuit of it, and enjoy your unique role. Hopefully, one day you will be able to sit back and take pride in the small or significant ways that you helped make that happen.

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Loving Your Neighbor Through #Edu Research & Applied Projects

I don’t teach much these days, not since I moved into administration a number of years ago. However, I do still advise students for their thesis or capstone projects and I teach 2-3 courses a year, including a graduate research course. I run it as an applied course. They learn some basics about educational research, but they also get to put together simple drafts of a typical chapter 1, 2, and 3 in a thesis.

bryantAs we get started thinking about a chapter 1, I challenge them to also think about the “why” behind a potential research project. What is the question that you seek to answer/explore? What is the problem that you want to address (for those choosing a more applied project instead of a traditional thesis)? I find this to be a wonderful time to think about the reason for research and applied projects in education. In doing so, I agree with James Conant Bryant, past president of Harvard, when he stated that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance to the immediate future of our civilization.” I resonate with the The Wisconsin Idea, which casts a vision of research that is useful, “to the the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (although I would prefer the focus on problems that are important to the citizens instead of the state, when there is difference between the two). I am intrigued by the vision of academic leaders like Frederick Terman, who was partly behind the Stanford Industrial Park, and he is sometimes referred to as a father of Silicon Valley, encouraging faculty to start businesses.

Since I am at a faith-based University, I take this a step further. I briefly introduce the graduate students to a historic teaching in the Lutheran tradition known as the doctrine of vocation (calling). I contend that our work can be understood as a calling to love our neighbors. Here is how I explain it to my educational research students:

I was only a boy scout for a short time, but one simple boy scout message stuck with me.  On our first camping trip, the scout master noted that we always want to leave the campground looking better than when we came.  In a sense, that is what this course is about.  Research in Educational  is really about leaving the field of education (and the educational organizations that we serve) better than when we first arrived.  In other words, we are looking for problems to solve, questions to answer, and needs to fill.  This is what we are going to explore during this course.  We are looking for problems, questions, and needs that we can help address, and we will be using the tools of research and/or scholarship to address them.

 Have you ever heard about people in the ivory tower publishing doctoral dissertations on esoteric topics?  You hear about it and possibility wonder, “What is the point?!” or “Did my tax dollars go to support that?!”  That can happen.  And there are certainly times when research that seems petty actually turns out to have a positive benefit for the world.  Whatever the case, I would like to take a moment to share or remind you of Concordia University Wisconsin’s mission statement. There is much involved in that statement, but one thing that is embedded in it is the Lutheran understanding of vocation…or calling.  Lutherans work from an understanding that we have a number of callings in our lives.  This includes things like mother, father, son, student, teacher, accountant, doctor, street sweeper, educator, researcher, scholar, etc.  And our mission is to serve our neighbors by serving faithfully within each calling.  Each calling gives us opportunity to engage in loving our neighbor.  While I’ve never found the original source, many claim that Martin Luther once said it this way: “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” So, how do we love our neighbors by doing educational research an applied projects? You will be challenged to answer that question as you identify a potential thesis or project at the end of your program, and you will get practice doing it in this class.”

 Are you an educational researcher? How do/can you love your neighbor through your work? Do you work in the more applied realm of education? I contend that the same question applies. Are you running an educational startup or exploring some new educational innovation? Are you a graduate student nearing the end of your program and looking ahead to that thesis or culminating project? What would happen if we framed all such efforts around a simple question about love for neighbor?

How to Maximize the Impact of an Edupreneur in Your School

There is a good chance that you have at least a couple of them in your school. The question is whether they will soon be leaving your school or if they are helping them make their greatest impact on the students, school, community and world. I’m referring to edupreneurs, the sometimes eccentric, but always passionate and driven teachers who want to create, innovate and conjure the spirit of a startup in education. Many edupreneurs started by identifying a problem, need or opportunity and doing something about it. They are action-oriented and want to see tangible results. Does this sound like the type of educator who might have something to offer to your school and students? Is is the type of person that you might want to keep around? If so, here are ten tips to doing just that.

1. Differentiate

We get the idea of differentiated instruction for students, but what about for teachers, staff and administrators? Sometimes doing the same thing for every person is the least fair, or it is a certain way to make sure you don’t help everyone perform at their maximum capacity. Instead, consider what each teacher and staff member needs to not only survive the day, but to thrive. Make it your goal to offer differentiated leadership.

2. Leave Space for Innovation

Sometimes school leaders establish policies and procedures that verge on micro-managing. Some employees thrive on very detailed and prescribed activities, but many do not, especially not the edupreneurs. They need room to experiment, explore and innovate; and that means finding ways to loosen up on the reigns a bit. In fact, there may even be times when you want to give them the freedom and flexibility to work beyond the standard policies and procedures to launch something new. Just be aware of the impact on the overall culture and be prepared to manage perceptions.

3. Affirm The Innovators

Find ways to affirm the innovative work of the edupreneurs. Make sure they know that you value their contributions and appreciate their distinct gifts and abilities.

4. Help Them Find the Time and Resources

Innovation takes both. When possible and proper, look for creative ways to give a bit of financial support and especially time for them to work on a new project. If that means calling something a pilot and making them the official lead for it, then give it a try.

5. Redefine Failure

A highly risk-averse context is not a place where an edupreneur will thrive. If you want to reap the benefits of such people in your school, then it means celebrating failure as an education that helps with future endeavors. Of course, you want to manage the risk and make sure it doesn’t compromise other organizational priorities, but given that you have those things in check, give them room to fail and don’t treat it like a character flaw. The goal is positive impact more than polished perfectionism.

6. Accept The Value of the Lopsided Edupreneur

Some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial people are wonderfully lopsided. In other words, they don’t necessarily have a perfectly balanced set of skills, knowledge and abilities. However, they may have a few amazing and well-refined skills and abilities, and that is where they can have the greatest impact. Those annual reviews need to happen and it is important to help them work on growth areas that might hurt them (or others) or hold them back from being successful. It is equally or even more important to encourage them to build on their strengths. In other words, if they are excelling in an area, don’t necessarily think that the goal is to then help them excel in an area of weakness. Instead think about how you can help them build on their strengths.

7. Be Open to New Titles, Structures and Processes

Innovation is, by nature, about doing things that are not being done. So, there is unlikely to be a set of policies, rules and job descriptions that fit what an edupreneur may be trying to do. Be open to creating new positions, new job descriptions, and new structures that give them what they need to flourish.

8. Trust Them But Stay True to Your Convictions

You are not going to see or understand everything they are trying or thinking. Some may even seem downright silly. You will need to find a balance between trusting them to innovate in ways that you don’t understand and staying true to your values and convictions for the school. Make your expectations clear, but also be willing to give them the freedom to do things that you don’t get…at least not yet.

9. Keep the Students First

These innovators have wonderful gifts to offer, but your first priority is to the well-being and education of the students. In the frenzy of creating and innovating, some edupreneurs may occasionally lose sight of certain elements that are critical. They may often be willing to take risk that you are not willing to take, not when other key priorities are at stake. With that in mind, you can support them, but do so within the boundaries that you consider important, and communicate those boundaries clearly, explaining why they are important to you. Sometimes you will set boundaries in the wrong place, so be humble enough to see that and change. Other times, the edupreneur may decide that she needs more freedom and flexibility than is possible in your school. That is okay.

10. Let Them Go

Some edupreneurs will be delighted to spend a long career in your school, but that is not necessarily the calling for all of them. Some will benefit your school, develop new skills while there, and then be called to something else. Accept that. Don’t try to guilt them into staying. Make sure they know that they are valued and supported as long as they want to stay, but also be the first to give them your blessing and support as they go to start the next big education business, start a new school, or apply their gifts in a new context.

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