Transforming Higher Education - at Viral Speed

By Clare Middleton-Detzner and Erin Knepler

We’ve seen how hot news stories and video links can go viral through social media channels. Imagine if that same fast pace could propel ideas through higher education to benefit productivity and efficiency in those systems. After returning home to Maryland from Big Ideas Fest—an annual nexus for some of the top innovators in education—Erin Knepler, P-20 Program Director at the University System of Maryland, began to imagine education innovation gone viral.

“We live in a very fast-paced world, but that speed is rarely seen in higher education.

“I've been thinking a lot about the various ‘big ideas’ that were presented at Big Ideas Fest and how that momentum can be transferred into higher education,” Knepler says. Not a proponent of “things staying the same,” she explains that the rapid-fire talks at Big Ideas Fest, integrated with the Action Collabs (where participants come together to quickly design solutions to pressing issues in the education world), specifically generated some “wonderful grand ideas.”

For Erin, working with her stakeholders to build enthusiasm for big ideas is a process. “I still have to work within the system, and change is not always something that happens overnight,” she continues. “But I’ll be going back to our campuses and talking with administrators there, and talking with the faculty” to find ways for those ideas to take root.

Fortunately, the University System of Maryland (USM), where Knepler works, is no stranger to innovative thinking. Maryland is one of the states that has joined the Lumina Foundation for Education’s College Productivity initiative, an effort to increase the number of Americans (especially adults, first-generation-college, low-income students and students of color) with college degrees. Maryland’s goal is to increase degrees and credentials to 55% percent by 2025. With a redesign of “bottleneck” undergraduate courses being a key goal of Maryland’s Lumina work, USM institutions are turning to MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

 “The MOOC movement is one of the fastest movements I have seen take root during my career in higher education,” says Knepler. “We are beginning to incorporate MOOCs or portions of those online courses into face-to-face classes, and we are also starting a research project on the effectiveness of MOOCs with ITHAKA S+R (a non-profit that uses technology to advance the scholarly record, research and teaching).”

“The speed at which this transformation is occurring,” she continues,” is making me wonder if we are starting to see a tide shift.  If MOOCs are getting this much attention, what else can we do?”

Maryland’s higher education leadership recently echoed Knepler’s enthusiasm. During a briefing of members of the Maryland Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental affairs, Chancellor Brit Kirwan commented, “In my 49 years in higher education, this is the most exciting time.”  Referring to the series of recent innovations as a revolution, Kirwan detailed how 1) course redesign, 2) new delivery methods/techniques (e.g., MOOCs, engaged learning), and 3) learner analytics (i.e., new forms of data detailing how students learn and what causes road blocks for persistence) are helping USM remain on the cutting edge.  Approaching these innovations as a system, Knepler commented, is particularly useful since USM is able to pull together best practices and lessons learned and disseminate them across a variety of institutions and faculty. 

According to Knepler, “Letting faculty and administrators know we support such thinking and acting is liberating…It’s a lot easier to go into unchartered territory with a big support network.  If you stumble, there’s a team there to pick you up.  An environment that supports innovative thinking and approaches is required when there is uncertainly and risk.”

With MOOCs already in the works and fresh inspiration coming out of this year’s conference, ISKME looks forward to future updates from Knepler and USM on how the big ideas carried home from Big Ideas Fest 2012 might also go viral in 2013. 

February 04, 2013