“Harvard Adopts Chalk”: The Importance of Brand

The EvoLLLution | “Harvard Adopts Chalk”: The Importance of Brand
Engagement is a critical aspect of both enrollment and retention, but most colleges do not pay enough attention to this vital work.
It has often been noted that institutions of higher education are prone to “follow the leader” behavior, especially when it comes to innovation and the acceptance of new ideas. What the big-name institutions say, adopt and do is seen as providing a type of legitimacy that can be used as “cover” for decision-makers at lesser-known schools. If Harvard, Stanford or MIT are doing something new (say, MOOCs), then it’s seen as acceptable for others.

In taking note of such adoptions, the higher education news media does two things. First, it makes others aware that some form of innovation is being considered, or adopted by a pace-setter. This is seen in a positive light, as it can offer encouragement to others. However, there can also be an unintended consequence; this kind of coverage from the higher education news media unfortunately reinforces the public stereotype that higher education is incredibly slow-moving.

This effect is evident in the news media’s recent excitement around USC’s announcement of their new online MBA program. A similar example of brand-driven attention can be seen in the recent Arizona State-Starbucks announcement. While the media made much of this, many lesser-known institutions have had such college-employer relationships for decades. What made this one newsworthy was the combination of well-known brands coming together to extend access to employees who might not otherwise attend college. Unfortunately, some outlets made it sound as if there was something unique about business and education working together in this way.

When a brand such as Stanford enters into a campus-wide conversation around the use of technology in teaching, led by its president, we have news. Never mind that, as in the USC example, others have successfully done what is being considered for decades. Reflecting on these issues, it’s not hard to see that, in our industry, the news isn’t about what is being proposed but, rather, who is doing the proposing. The news does not reside in the consideration of the online technologies or their use. It instead resides in the fact that it is Stanford, sitting in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

This, of course, also raises the question, “Where have these guys been for the past 20 years?” Or at least it should.

Less well-known institutions have seen the flip side of this. No matter the merits of the idea, new thinking and innovation are less likely to be noticed without brand. An example can be seen in the fallout from the recent MOOC mania. For many in traditional institutions, online learning hasn’t existed in any way worthy of notice until Stanford, Harvard and MIT embraced this “new” way to deliver instruction. Not only can a MOOC reach hundreds of thousands at a time, worldwide, they are free for students and require no student-faculty interaction.

Lost in the debate over the strengths and shortcomings of MOOCs has been the fact that other, perhaps more effective forms of online learning are available, for free, through Creative Commons and Open Educational Resources (OER) – decidedly non-brand names. But, when these courses are mapped to ACE-reviewed subject exams, the problem of credit worthiness goes away.

In the minds of many, it is the aforementioned “big three” that have brought online learning to higher education, 29 years after John F. Kennedy University introduced an online MBA. This is the value of brand, facts aside.

Brand attracts media and popular attention. It conveys legitimacy and it offers positive perceptions (even if not always accurate). Within higher education, the practice of looking to brand-name institutions to validate new ideas increases the likelihood of faculty acceptance (a frequently cited concern in the adoption of innovation). “If it’s good enough for <insert brand name here>, it’s good enough for us,” is a refrain often heard in the search for something new or different. However, these validating brands can, as already noted, be late to the party. It is rare that they are the early adopters (MOOCs being the exception). And postsecondary leaders who look to the big brands for their innovation leads may find themselves exceptionally behind the times after all.

If government, business and the media want to see examples of true innovation, they may need to rethink their practice of following the brands. Entrepreneurial thinking and action rarely occur in large bureaucracies. These mega-organizations often need to see confirmed proof of concept before they can invest the resources necessary to launch something new at their institutions. Innovation, as we’ve heard over and over, happens on the margins—and nowhere is this truer than in our higher education industry.

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