I was at ASU / GSV this week. Wow, what an event. 4500 educators and administrators descended on San Diego, minus the Ron Burgundy jackets with patches on the sleeves, looking to see just what innovation looks like in higher education these days. There were sessions from educators, vendors, start-ups, international organizations, publishers, and on and on. But even after leaving that event for OLC in Nashville, I had the same conversation (sometimes debate) 16 unique times over the week. The question was consistently asked, “Is ASU innovative?”
Before I answer, you need to know that I have more than a basic understanding of ASU. My former boss was the CIO at ASU for a long while. The word “firecracker” doesn’t describe Adrian (@sannier). Disruptor or force of nature might be more apropos. He wanted to change the aspects of the world he felt he could impact with expertise and he did so tenaciously. But as I got to know Adrian, I realized much of his aggressive, confident nature came because of how much he liked and respected his former boss, Michael Crow, who enabled and empowered Adrian to do what he did best. Adrian was, without a doubt, innovative.
Juxtaposed against that relationship, during that same time (through work at eCollege / Pearson), I worked on a number of initiatives with ASU, not the least of which was as their main LMS trainer and semi-consultant around eLearning. While they had an extremely savvy staff, I would certainly lend my thoughts or expertise if needed. I traveled to Phoenix three or four times per year to work with ASU faculty, instructional designers, and program directors. But I have to admit, as much as I enjoyed the conversations and the work, ASU faculty didn’t seem particularly innovative to me. I was working concurrently with (literally) thousands of faculty members at the time and the ASU profs seemed to fall into the same categories I would use for faculty just about anywhere. There were some impressive and creative instructors just as there were some I would avoid at all costs as a student. Likewise, their online learning group was similar to the other eLearning organizations I knew. They had their share of progressives and a few leaders, just as they had some long-timers who seemingly had the fight knocked out of them at some point. But again, there really were not any revolutionary processes, people, or paradigms at ASU. At least none I could see first hand.
The normal dysfunction of higher ed was clarified for me by a professor at ASU. (But please know that this is not different than almost any university in all of the U.S.) He was explaining how impossible it was to create a curriculum map. He said that they have potentially 10 or more versions of any given class, often under different departments entirely. Those 10 versions of the class are taught 10 completely different ways with no more than a nod to outcomes and objectives. So, trying to find “the” course of truth to use for a large-scale experience is impossible. (They ended up creating yet another version from scratch.) That description is not only the opposite of innovative, it’s not even inline with the most effective practices for education.
But as I was leaving that consulting world several years ago, the US News and World Report lists started to take off. Oh dear….the lists. Know that those lists mean absolutely nothing. I’ll forget the best college lists and best faculty lists for now – their damage to higher ed and students / parents aside, I don’t have time to get into the dozens of survey flaws. But with regard to innovation, surveying university leaders and asking, “who is innovative”, only to use that sole response as the determinate is akin to asking 1,000 first graders what the best candy is. Quite honestly, who cares? You will get answers based on marketing and advertising, or based on parental likes as that is the only candy the kids have access to. You’ll get answers based on spin and hype. Likewise is the Innovation list. Unless a university leader has actually worked with ASU, then their opinion of the school doesn’t matter. It will be a reflection of attention grabbing headlines like the Starbucks deal, or even a completely spurious connection like research or patents, etc.
So if the list of innovative universities doesn’t shine the right light, what does? Is it ASU’s office of innovation? Maybe, maybe not. I honestly don't know. How many stores have a customer service department, yet exhibit little to no customer service? I can say that there does not seem to be any kind of systemic, architectural approach to innovation, instead bubbling up hundreds (thousands?) of tiny pockets, none of which are connected in any meaningful way. After all, there may be no greater consumer of ed tech, particularly in terms of pilots.
For the right framework on that, you need to know what other schools, leaders, and vendors – those who really know ASU – say about it. I know of more than a dozen ed tech firms working on pilots with ASU and their feedback is consistent when talking to anyone else in the know: ASU will work with anyone, so long as the price is next to nothing. Obviously, that is not the marketing hype or press release spin you’ll hear. They’re all THRILLED to be working with an innovative and world-class partner like ASU. But I had one colleague explain to me that his start-up was told, “ASU will never pay more than $100K over the life of a contract for ed tech…” (Obviously that can’t apply to things like an LMS, SIS, etc, but it was said all the same.)
So I have to ask an important question about all of that technology. Where are the scaled components of it all? After all, shouldn’t we see all of the fruition of those pilots, experiments, and tests? One Vice-Provost from a school down south said it this way, “ASU is great at starting stuff, but they can’t finish. After all, they haven’t taken much of anything to scale.” And from where I sit, that seems accurate. ASU seemingly has hundreds of projects in “one off” mode, but few (none?) that I can see which have been used throughout the ASU experience. They can point to a single “classroom of the future” project with money donated by X sponsor, but only one. It hasn’t been replicated. Same goes for platforms, systems, models, and beyond...
But I then have to remind myself of something important. Innovation is not synonymous with technology. I preached that for years at Saint Leo and need to heed my own idioms. So, I looked at non-technology factors like acceptance rates and minimum requirements. I wondered if ASU was helping a student with a 1.7 GPA in high school get that coveted university degree. MANY schools wouldn't even try and those who would struggle. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to see that while 1.7 was not on the table (students need a minimum 2.0 for acceptance), and their average incoming student’s GPA looks to be a 3.4 (suggesting that efforts around success can be targeted to a much smaller group of students who need it), but at least they are giving some of the less-prepared students a real shot vs schools with much higher GPA requirements. But are they helping them succeed where other schools cannot? Actually….I think the answer is that they are.
Beyond the Starbucks initiative, which does help workers who likely wouldn’t get a degree, jump on that path (although it’s more an innovation for their enrollment office than it is for anything else), ASU has some other innovative practices that are notable from a teaching and learning / student success perspective.
- Using the Freshman Global Academy to see first year students not pay for a credit until they know they’ve passed or creating the ability to complete their first year via MOOCs is pretty clever.
- Data mining student Facebook and Twitter posts is interesting when it comes to resilience, open-mindedness, or social awareness support. While I am surprised they haven’t tried a walled garden (like software providing an ASU only social experience) option that allows for far better metrics, intervention, and access, using algorithms for social support certainly lines up with a lot of research on holistic connectedness.
- I know ASU is trying to figure out how to really make adaptive content work – especially in their lower level math courses. A lot of schools have taken their eye off of that ball (which is a mistake). Bravo.
- Their nudge work with advising and retention efforts (again, which really could tie to #3 if they did a better job with system’s thinking) to help students get back on a success track is good.
- Allowing students to work on a single project throughout the entirety of their degree (vs forcing them to take required classes) not only takes some genuine master teachers, but is a great approach (if it really works).
So, is ASU innovative? Yes, I think they are. Are the #1 school for innovation? No, I don’t think so. I can think of several schools both domestic and international that are doing much more, scalable, design-thinking kinds of innovation that should be above them on any list of innovative schools. But, perception determines reality, right? So all the marketing and advertising and lists just reinforce what people are primed to believe. It's like every single school stating that they have the best faculty or the best programs, blah, blah, blah... but if YOU went there or if that school is near your hometown, then it must be true!
It was an interesting summit (conference). If nothing else, I had 16 really fun conversations about what innovation actually looks like in a university setting. Good fodder for my book, I guess...
Good luck and good learning.