Agility and Flexibility Central Characteristics of the Modern Higher Ed InstitutionDiane Johnson | Program Director for The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of Utah
Agility is an ever-increasing requirement of success in any industry and (to the chagrin of some) higher education is no longer an exception.
Williams, Worley, and Lawler define agility as more than just the ability to change. “It is cultivated capability that enables an organization to respond in a timely, effective, and sustainable way, when changing circumstances require it.” For higher education— present circumstances require it. We can no longer maneuver like “battleships that cannot turn quickly when the competitive environment changes.” The competitive environment has changed. Embracing market and operational changes must be a matter of routine. Digital disruptions that come with technological advances, changing economic and political factors, and more legitimate competition, require a more nimble response. The time for agility is now.
Topping the list of important changes is a move to a more modular approach to both degree paths and course content delivery. With the rapid evolution of new industries and the employer need for a better prepared workforce, a more modular approach will allow institutions to transform their program and course offerings more quickly. Improved responsiveness puts an institution in a better position to increase its desirability and market share. Students are customers. Customers have choices. Agility through more programmatic and course modularity will help ensure that students will chose your university over the other options available.
Secondly, more flexible scheduling is essential to attract and keep students. Life is about logistics. Students, regardless of age, who can manage the logistics of their lives and schooling effectively will be successful and graduate. Schools that provide flexibility will be the ones that will be sought after. The constant flow of information and increased globalization perpetuates a need for individuals to interact with others across the world. Increasing numbers of individuals who must manage various time zones and other work and life responsibilities that don’t fit into a standard 9-5 school day or workday. To be agile, postsecondary institutions would be wise to include both synchronous and asynchronous elements in their degree programs and courses. Rich educational experiences and academic rigor can be a part of flexible scheduling practices just as they are in more traditional settings.
Third, universities would be wise to implement more liberal credit acceptance and transfer policies. Historically, we, as an industry, have been a bit arrogant in our assumption that expertise gained anywhere but our school must be inferior to what we offer. In truth, that is often a faulty assumption. Further, we rarely have any kind of quantifiable proof of our superiority. Still, we persist in our restrictive policies at the peril of our student’s pocket books, debt loads, time and other resources. Of course, there must be due diligence in vetting other institutions and entities to ensure that they are indeed legitimate and provide quality programs. In all of our due diligence, however, we would do well to cast a wider net. Offerings at schools out of our “league” or Carnegie classification are worthy of our serious consideration. Do we recognize the legitimacy and rigor of national accreditation? More specifically, will we accept credits from nationally accredited schools? Additionally, are we considering general education credits earned from entities such as StraighterLine and others approved by the American Council on Education. Have we done legitimate comparisons? Can we justify not allowing students to transfer those credits? Are credits that were earned long ago really not worth anything? We would do well to thoughtfully examine our credit transfer practices.
One of the most important changes necessary for agility is increased interaction with business and industry to ensure relevance. The experience of being immersed in an academic environment is an essential part of the college experience. It fosters critical inquiry and thinking. It builds networks and social interactions that are so essential. Unfortunately, there is a large gap between what industry needs and what universities produce. The reality is that beyond the rich university experiences students gain, they must have a way to earn a living after they graduate. To do this they must either get a job or start their own business. Higher education must partner with industry to ensure that content and program requirements are up to date and sufficiently sophisticated. We must remain relevant for our students and the employers who hire them or their success as entrepreneurs. Otherwise, beyond research, how can we justify the existence of our programs for which these students pay tuition?
Lastly, we need integrate more authentic measures of learning and competence. Our graduates need to be able to think critically. They must be able to apply what they have learned to the novel situations they will encounter in their work and lives after they graduate. Too often, our measures of learning only assess basic content knowledge and lower level cognitive tasks. If students are to leave our institutions with more knowledge and skill than they entered with, we need to bring our “A-game”. Deliberate and thoughtful alignment between identified learning outcomes, what we teach, and what we test is essential. Increased use of performance-based summative measures of learning is an important change to improve agility. Students need to show us that they can apply what they have learned in meaningful ways. Performance-based assessment requires a bit more work and organization on the front end, but yields much more substantive results. Students benefit, universities benefit, employers benefit and society benefits.
Like it or not, agility is increasingly critical to our success and relevance as an industry. Higher education is not immune from being responsive to our customers. The hallmark research and innovation of higher education is imperative. However, it is no more imperative than producing future researchers and innovators. Are we tending to both? Is our organization agile enough to achieve both?
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 Thomas Williams, Christopher Worley and Edward Lawler, “The Agility Factor,” Strategy + Business, April 15, 2013. Accessed at http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00188?pg=all
 Craig Le Clair, “The 10 Dimensions of Business Agility,” Forrester. 2015. Accessed at https://solutions.forrester.com/business-agility
Author Perspective: Administrator