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Driving Change: The Need for Innovation Specialists

The pandemic has highlighted the need for significant change in higher ed, and innovation specialists can make sure this change is done in a way that best suits an institution and its learners. 

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that higher ed needs to adapt and innovate. But it’s difficult to break from tradition and create something new and future-proof. This is why innovation specialists are especially needed today. These specialists are able to transform an institution so that it fulfills its own needs as well as those of students and the evolving and demanding labor market. In this interview, Terry Bower discusses how innovation specialists can be a part of the solution, how to create more pathways for the lifelong learner, and which opportunities come with this drive for change. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is an innovation specialist, and what role do they play within the higher ed institution?

Terry Bower (TB): When I think of innovation, I see it as more of a mindset than a job title, because innovation can exist anywhere within a university. But in terms of mindset, there are a few traits that I think are important in order to be successful. First, it’s important to have someone who likes to build and create new products and services rather than someone who likes to manage; building and managing require very different skillsets. Second, you want someone who has a sense of, or at least an interest in understanding, what consumers want and what the new trends are. My background is in market research, so I come at development from that lens. It is important to have experience conducting validation studies and doing the necessary research to ensure that what you’re doing is what the market wants. Third, one must be a good communicator because if you’re doing anything in higher education, you need to be able to communicate it vertically and horizontally with all constituents to get buy-in upfront and along the way. 

For innovation to occur, it is also extremely helpful to have a flexible organizational structure. I am fortunate to operate a cash-funded unit for the university that is fairly autonomous. We’re responsible for our own revenue and expenses, so we must be sustainable. As a result, we are able to respond nimbly to market forces. We can set our own tuition prices and open and close programs quickly as needed. 

Evo: How do you bridge the divide between doing what makes the most business sense and maintaining relationships with the traditional machinations of the institution?

TB: I go with the coalition of the willing. Some folks in higher education think that consumer is a bad word and that we are only in the business of offering degrees; it doesn’t make sense to try to change their minds. Fortunately, there are many more who understand the existential need to diversify our educational offerings to provide what consumers–and employers–want. MSU Denver leadership understands that we need to create more on- and off-ramps for our students, whatever these may look like. They also understand that, by diversifying our educational offerings, we are creating more pipelines to degree programs. 

Evo: The idea of building more matriculation pathways and finding ways to connect the lifelong learning part of the institution with the traditional main campus is fascinating. What is the strategic imperative to accomplishing this? 

TB: There is so much clutter and noise right now in the higher education space that it is nearly impossible for prospects to know where to begin. There are trade schools, technical schools, privates, four-year universities, two-year community colleges, bootcamps, apprenticeships, and so much more. This fractured landscape is especially challenging for first-generation prospects, who have been out of the system for a while, do not have strong networks, speak a different language as their primary language, and have few resources.

I am currently building a broad stackable credential program, from non-credit to credit, at MSU Denver. The goal is to build 50 stackable courses across disciplines with clearly delineated academic and career pathways. The message to the public is: “Not sure where to begin your educational journey? Dip your toe into one of many MSU Denver courses taught by our expert faculty in areas that you are passionate or want to learn more about. Low cost. No application required.” This is a low-risk way for potential new students to explore opportunities with three key benefits: 1) any course they take will stack into credit; and 2) we’ve already delineated the academic and career pathways available after taking this first course, and 3) students see more choices in their educational journey. This builds a pipeline for MSU Denver and positions the university on the front end as a helpful guide to new prospects.

Evo: With 15 to 20 different disciplines, what does it take to actually design that? 

TB: The commitment to doing this is huge. When I researched stackable credentials at other institutions, I found some discipline-specific examples here and there, but I had to dig to find these, so it must be very hard for the average prospect to find. There are also many different ways to stack credentials, and I wanted to start with a simple, small step–a non-credit course–as a low-risk way to get individuals who might not otherwise consider higher education to step into it.

I pulled together a team of experts from across the university to create a work group around this stacking project, and we meet monthly. We have folks from admissions, prior learning assessment, university policy, instructional design, faculty curriculum committee, and marketing; we have dean and faculty representation as well. For each new course, we also invite industry partners into the discussion to validate what we are creating and to help articulate the various pathways. It’s intense work, and it definitely takes time, but the end product will have been worth it.

Evo: How important is modernizing the digital engagement infrastructure to delivering the experience that a modern consumer looking for a post-secondary product actually expects?

TB: University websites still tend to present their information by academic program; it’s the way it’s always been done. Bootcamps don’t do this; they present their programs by job demand. Bootcamps are looking at what the consumer wants to see–the end goal–and I think there are some best practices we could take from that model. Innovative and lifelong learning has its own website, and we are moving toward the bootcamp way of displaying information. 

One example is the Skills Lab that we created just after the pandemic hit. The Skills Lab is a free program to anyone who wants to brush up on skills in high-growth industries in Colorado. The offerings are located on our website by high-growth industry based on our research about current and projected job demand. We found that organizing the content in this way was helpful to individuals looking to learn new skills or to upskill.

Evo: What do we need to do as an industry to overcome the perspective that we’re just about bachelor and master degrees?

TB: I think that the expansion from degrees to degrees plus alternative credentials can feel like an existential threat to higher education. When you think about it, BAs have been around for 800 years. AA degrees have been around in one form or another for about 150 years. It’s cliché to say that the times have changed, but we know that folks are increasingly looking for credentials that fall outside of degrees; we can either adapt or not. I try not to push anyone at the university; I like to go with the coalition of the willing, show proof of concept, and then expand as able.

Evo: What does the complexity of the higher ed ecosystem look like in, say, 20 years?

TB: I think a lot of turf wars will end in higher education. The structure we have now in which community colleges offer AA degrees, and universities offer four-year degrees–even though everybody’s slowly moving into everybody else’s space–will end. This doesn’t seem like a sustainable model. I envision more mergers and consolidations. 

I also see blockchain playing a role in the future. I can envision a time when all individuals carry their own digital backpack containing all of their accumulated education and experience. 

I can also see the disassembling of the bachelor’s degree. A student may take some physics courses at MIT and some diversity, equity, and inclusion courses at MSU Denver, and package those to show an employer that she has the educational foundation and knowledge for a specific job. 

Evo: How do you create employer buy-in in changing our structures and norms, especially when it comes to growing digital credentials and badging?

TB: Employers have to be involved on the front end when we are building new educational offerings. I need to know what their pain points are. What skills do they need an employee to have? How will they know whether someone has those skills? What tools do they want people to master? When we have their buy-in upfront, they are far more likely to support our program and to hire our students. The industry partners I speak with are far more interested in knowing that a potential employee has a specific skillset than a degree.

Evo: When we think about drivers for change, it’s comes down to opportunity or threat. What is the more compelling of the two to actually driving some kind of change?

TB: Opportunity. There is endless opportunity. The only barriers are the limits of our imagination and the energy and time it takes to make the necessary changes. As I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate to work at MSU Denver because it is such a forward-thinking university. I am also fortunate to work within a unit that has the autonomy to run with new ideas and sometimes fail. I have permission to fail, and that is key. Innovating requires urgency, but it also requires patience; I am compelled to create change, and I must balance that with moving slowly and methodically to bring stakeholders on board.

Evo: In recent years, there has been a debate around a CE division’s place, whether it should be centralized to the institution. How do you maintain this autonomous space while working closely with your colleagues across the institution and creating this identity shift for the university itself at the same time?

TB: When I started at MSU Denver four years ago, we were located on a separate campus in the Denver Tech Center, and it was horrible; we were seen as a stepchild to the university, as “other”. It was very clear to me that we could not succeed without changing this dynamic. We need our academic partners; we need to see them, run into them in the halls, grab coffee with them, and build trusting relationships with them. Their success is our success, and our goal is to build pipelines for their disciplines. We closed our Denver Tech Campus in September 2020 and post-pandemic, we have plans to return to the main campus. I know other CE units have operated well offsite. In our case, while we are still a cash-funded unit, I strongly believe that we need to be centrally located on campus to build the best collaborations possible.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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