Published on 2015/04/20

Adapting to Societal Demands: Three Ways to Help Institutions Succeed in the Modern Era

The EvoLLLution | Adapting to Societal Demands: Three Ways to Help Institutions Succeed in the Modern Era
Higher education institutions have displayed tremendous staying power over the past few centuries, and must adapt to today’s societal pressures and demands to stay relevant going forward.

We could argue that higher education institutions are already agile because they survive longer than the S&P 500 whose lifespan is only 18 years.[1] Colleges and universities are deeply studied for their ability to adapt. They are lauded for their ability to thrive over time with changing societal demands.

Today, society is demanding reduced costs to students, increased accountability and increased job training, job placement and job effectiveness. Universities in general are under pressure to demonstrate agility to address these demands.

Strategies such as adopting competency-based learning and moving more programs online could certainly be on a list of changes to increase agility. While I think these are important enablers, they aren’t in my top-three changes. They are too easy to silo off into a special function that won’t enable systemic agility. I also didn’t include removing tenure on the list because I don’t agree that it is a barrier to innovation.

Here are three changes that I do think increase agility: adaptable learning spaces, taking responsibility for the total student experience, and empowering students to be change makers in our institutions.

1. Create Adaptable Learning Spaces

I know this sounds too simple, but changing your physical space can create powerful innovation effects. If your classrooms look like a 14th-century illustration showing the teacher at the front of the room with engaged students in the front row and sleepers in the back row, you not only look like a fossil, you symbolize a form of learning that science has proven ineffective.[2]

Becoming more agile may be as simple as getting rid of the iconic lecture hall. It turns out that changing teaching space changes teaching behaviors. Faculty teaching in these new spaces adapt to them. With some support that understands learning science, faculty can re-design their teaching to fit the new space to include more characteristics that lead to student success.[3]

2. Design and Measure the Total Student Experience

If you are focusing primarily on courses and programs, you are not wielding all of your expensive assets to improve student success.  Every person and place that a student touches is part of your total student experience, from the cultural to the physical.  All of this can be designed to catalyze improved learning outcomes and more. Michigan State University’s Neighborhoods are a good example of co-designing a more integrated student experience.

Part of agility is the ability to think and draw conclusions quickly. Having and using meaningful data about every aspect of the total student experience is critical. While learning analytics are becoming a standard practice, they are also often narrowly focused on the course experience. Encompass the complete student user experience with a data-obsessed culture. Arizona State University is a good example of a university starting to take on this perspective.[4]

3. Unleash the Power of Students to Co-Create Your Future

Corporations work hard to create meaningful engagement with their customers. They strive to co-create their future with the buyers of their goods and services. Higher Education Institutions are fortunate that students are not simply consumers of knowledge, but have a role in the system as co-creators. One example is the creation of the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University, which is now a nine-month certification program, a research farm and part of a residential college. Students can also help create institutional agility. Stanford2025 and MIT’s U.Lab are strong examples of leveraging the innovative power of their students and beyond to re-imagine their own future. Empower your students to drive innovation inside your institution. Their energy can bring faculty along with them.


There are many more ways to increase agility to respond to current and emerging demands. These top three are things I’ve seen in action in a variety of contexts. I’ve experienced the change-power of new campus spaces to positively impact teaching and learning outcomes. I’ve seen the change-power of a data-driven culture. I know the power of every aspect of a learner’s experience to impact their success, and I’ve been part of changes driven by empowered students. These three ways of being an institution can create lasting agility.

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[1] “Creative Destruction Whips through Corporate America,” INNOSIGHT Executive Briefing, Winter 2012. Accessed at

[2] Aleszu Bajak, “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds,” Science Magazine, May 12, 2014. Accessed at

[3] “Adaptable Spaces and their Impact on Learning,” Hermann Miller Research Summer, 2009. Accessed at

[4] Jim Rome, “Improving the Study Experience with Analytics and Big Data,” Presentation at UC eNGAGE Conference, October 2014. Accessed at

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