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Establishing a Systems-Thinking Mindset

Developing a systems-thinking mindset could be revolutionary for a higher education institution, but it requires institution-wide collaboration, adapting to serve student and workforce needs as they arise and forming productive partnerships outside the university.

As the new era of higher education challenges how leaders are approaching education, it’s forcing a shift in mindset. Looking at opportunities and challenges from new perspectives is the best way to meet new learner needs. In this interview, Allison Ruda and Amanda Welsh discuss the mindset higher ed leaders need moving forward, some of the challenges that come with it and how to overcome them.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to have a systems-thinking mindset?

Allison Ruda (AR): Whether we’re attempting to solve a problem or face new challenges, our go-to solutions tend to be ones that worked well for us in the past. It’s like that old expression: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s great if you’re solving the same type of problem over and over again, but higher education leaders are encountering challenges few could have imagined five years ago. Approaching complex problems with a systems-thinking mindset is like completing a jigsaw puzzle; only by figuring out how the individual puzzle pieces fit together can you get to the full solution.    

Amanda Welsh (AW): From the skillification perspective, the challenge that comes with your goal definition being too narrow, then design decisions won’t scale to include other possible needs. If you only focus on one application—say looking at skills in job postings to determine what you should be teaching in your courses—you may make design decisions that limit other potential use cases, like personalizing course recommendations or surfacing opportunities to award credit for prior learning.

The key is to think through what can be generalized. What’s interesting to note is that the typical approach to skillification has been to assume a need for a single list of skills that works for all circumstances. We have done research and found that this really doesn’t have to be the case. Course syllabi appear to offer a rich input to parse for skills. This means that the hard work it takes to manually define a single comprehensive list of skills taught at the university and to curate that list to change as new use cases are considered is not definitively needed. Instead, universities can think of syllabi as an input to any number of applications that each extract skills from them in whatever way makes most sense for a given use case. There will only be one syllabus, but it will correspond to many different possible lists of skills. Without a systems-thinking mindset, I don’t think we would have considered the need to adapt our notion of skills over time and across use cases. We would never have invested time in exploring the viability of syllabi as a source of language from which to extract skills algorithmically. Since time is so precious these days, we hope this yielded a better ROI than creating a list that will just need to be updated by someone else at a later date!

Evo: What are some challenges that come with adopting more of a systems-thinking mindset?

AR: Universities and colleges have been enrolling students, transcription credit and conferring degrees for many years, and their operational processes, financial models and record-keeping systems are fine-tuned to support those activities. Over time, these systems and practices become part of the school’s norms and culture. When you consider how much technological change the world has seen in the last few decades alone, it’s clear that unbundlinghigher education requires fundamentally different capabilities and processes than we had even ten years ago. That’s certainly challenging from an infrastructure perspective, but it also requires a nontrivial amount of organizational adaptation and change across the university.  

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit or best practices to help overcome some of these obstacles?

AR: I see value in thinking of oneself not so much as an expert in a specific field but as a learner and explorer. Being open to new information and approaches and seeking common ground are critical steps in evolving both as a leader and a practitioner and moving your institution forward. Set the bar at a level that is challenging but attainable. You don’t need to abandon your current ways of doing things; you simply need to identify the box you’re in and take small but deliberate steps to climb out of it.

AW: Multidisciplinary teamwork is critical. It’s apparent when Allison and I get together that we bring fundamentally different perspectives to the table, and we make each other stronger as a result. The humility required to adopt a growth mindset is paramount.

Of course, multidisciplinary teamwork really implies that you have a clear sense of—and respect for—the different things that different team members contribute. This is particularly necessary when working with third-party partners. To form productive partnerships, you need to be very clear about what expertise you need them to bring. For example, skills-tech vendors are going to be skills data evaluation experts. You can ask them where they source their information, what kinds of bias it may contain, what sort of data evaluation techniques they use and what kinds of interpretation errors are possible. Their answers you get will go a long way in determining whether they are approaching things in a way that will accomplish what you need. But you might only think to ask these sorts of questions if you consider what perspective they bring to the broader team.

Evo: What impact does a systems-thinking mindset have on learners and employers?

AR: The most important and frankly the most enjoyable aspect of working in higher education for me is collaborating with colleagues from different functional areas toward a common goal. We tend to perpetuate a false dichotomy of pro-change or pro-innovation people and people who want to maintain the status quo. This focuses our energy and attention on working around each other rather than with each other, and it keeps those silos firmly in place. Sometimes, loosening our grip on our individual goals to focus on finding a common North allows new and better solutions to emerge.

AW: It’s definitely much more fun. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about a system of skill-driven applications?

AW: I’m excited by the potential. There’s currently a really active dialogue about what skills are and how we express them. More companies and institutions are moving to tech solutions, and I’m excited by advances in technologies like ChatGPT that can unlock things even quicker. The ability for higher ed institutions to understand what nimbleness looks like in terms of interdisciplinarity, humility, imagination, creativity and building will be imperative to surviving this changing paradigm.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Allison and Amanda wrote a chapter on this topic in the book New Models of Higher Education. To learn more, click here.

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