Published on 2020/10/02

Pivoting to the Future: Creating a Vision to Serve One Million Enrolled Students

In preparing higher ed institutions for the future of education and work, schools need to rethink their model to thrive in uncertain times. 

Can you imagine scaling your operations to serve over one million enrolled students? Late last fall, I reviewed the ContactNorth white paper entitled “Preparing for a Different Future – Learning in an Age of Disruption.” 

The report stated that “There are institutions in India, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, each with over a million enrolled students. The largest is the Indira Gandhi National Open University, based in Delhi, with over 4 million enrolled students” (p. 4).

While there are lots of articles in industry press today about the rise of mega universities (and I recognize, as noted in this post by Bryan Alexander, that this definition is not just concerned with size), I had not really considered being at an institution with one million students. So, reading that paper turned into a fantastic mental exercise for me. 

No way will my institution reach one million students anytime soon, but using that idea as a mental catalyst has had benefits!  I’m now thinking actively about how I can prepare my institution to pivot to the future. 

Just the thought of engaging an institutional vision while also developing systems and processes to enroll one million students prompts so many interesting questions. How would the paradigms, policies, procedures, and business practices at my institution need to change? How does scale impact quality? On the other hand, how does quality impact scale? And how can I begin to bring about the transformational change needed to impact this kind of vision today?  

I believe that the continued democratization of higher education, by those of us in the lifelong and online learning communities, is key. To advance a postsecondary education turning point, I contend that we need more higher education leaders with enhanced future-ready qualities, including curiosity, divergent thinking, maker skills, connectedness, resilience, adaptability, listening skills, and collaboration. Additionally, we need individuals who are lifelong learners themselves. 

At the recent Wisconsin DT&L conference, I presented a session entitled “Leading in Times of Change.” This topic was identified in November of last year, but it took on a completely different significance given the pandemic-ridden times in which we find ourselves, the growing social justice engagement, and the upcoming presidential election. During the session, I talked about VUCA and VUCA-Prime. VUCA—which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity–is a concept borrowed from the U.S. Army War College, dating back to 1987. In recent years, it has been applied to other contexts, such as business, to describe navigating a dynamic and changing environment. 

Differentiating VUCA and VUCA-Prime

VUCA is highlighted in greater detail below:

VolatilityFast, turbulent and unpredictable changes without clear patterns or trends

Uncertainty: Frequent disruptive changes where the past is not a very good predictor of the future – unfamiliar territory with the potential for surprise

Complexity: Multiple, complex, intertwined interdependencies or confounding of issues amidst global interconnectivity

Ambiguity: Little clarity or distinction between opportunities and threats (cause-and-effect). Multiple perspectives make it difficult to predict impacts of action given the haziness of reality

We are living in an increasingly VUCA environment. It should be noted that the idea of VUCA is not new to The EvoLLLution’s readership. Ellen Chaffee wrote the first EvoLLLution article referencing VUCA back in April of 2014 entitled: “Eight ways to see higher education management differently.” A quick search of the archives finds a few other mentions of VUCA in recent years.  

Today, more than ever, online and lifelong learning leaders need to focus on what the postsecondary future looks like and how the digital environment fits in. To this end, I believe a more action-oriented VUCA-Prime focus is needed. Coupled with key future-ready leadership qualities, this model emphasizes what leaders need to do to help their organizations thrive in uncertain times. 

VUCA-Prime is highlighted in greater detail below:

Vision: Have a clear purpose that provides a compass point for others. Shift from strategic planning to setting strategic intent, and be flexible in how you get there

Understanding: Stop, look, and listen beyond functional areas of expertise. Dialogue with multiple stakeholders before making a decision, and develop perceptual flexibility through a refined ability to take in different perspectives 

Clarity: See through the confusion (sensemaking) by creating a plausible understanding and context. Respond to what matters, and learn how to inspire others to follow through storytelling and creating action maps  

Agility: Build the capacity to move quickly and easily. Rapidly prototype a solution, experiment, reflect, synthesize and iterate. Anticipate risks, but don’t spend too much time in long term strategic plans – encourage networks rather than hierarchies 

A Sustainable Path to a Scalable Future

As noted in the ContactNorth paper, “The future is not a straight line from the past. It involves significant and substantial change and needs to do so if we are to respond to the significant shifts occurring in society, the environment and the global economy.” (pg. 9) 

While we find ourselves in uncertain times today, my primary course of action is to embrace a VUCA-Prime approach and work to enhance my future-ready qualities while better positioning my institution. For example, I’m investing in strategies that unlock our institutional potential, allowing us to unbundle our curriculum to support more just-in-time learning opportunities. I’m interested in tapping a worldwide talent pool to enhance our university workforce. Critically, I’m passionate about growing future senior leaders to further shape and pursue the lifelong and online learning missions. 

Mentally and through various action steps, I’m ‘Pivoting to the Future: Creating a Vision to Serve One Million Enrolled Students.’ It’s time for all of us to think seriously: what does your pivot to the future look like?   

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