What We Learned at the Inaugural Breakthrough Models Academy

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“What a week!” That was what one member of the inaugural Breakthrough Models Academy  posted to the group listserv as the participants dispersed. We had just spent an intensive week together in Cambridge, July 13-19, during the residential portion of the program. The Breakthrough Models Academy’s goal is to create a “sleeper cell:” a cohort of leaders who have the insight, energy, and commitment to design models that will address the critical issues in higher education and point to future change. NGLC was present as the group began the process of stretching toward that kind of leadership. The week combined opportunities to learn from insightful leaders and thinkers in next generation higher education with time for work in inter-institutional teams, with support from experienced coaches, to design a unique breakthrough model. The results, shared Friday morning, were the first intriguing, sketchy shapes of twelve designs that will be reworked, refined, polished, and finished over the coming weeks. Ultimately they will be presented, in a competition for professional development scholarships and cash awards, at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in October.

The 48 participants in this year’s inaugural cohort are experienced leaders within their own institutions with previous training in moving those institutions forward. (In fact, five were veteran project leaders of NGLC Wave I “Building Blocks for College Completion” grants.) The Academy encourages each participant to take the next steps of change agency. To foster their abilities to shape innovations that go beyond tinkering at the edges in order to achieve significantly improved outcomes for students, last week’s program offered participants two opportunities:

  • To hear from and interact with leaders from institutions– and in one instance a company - that are presently realizing breakthrough designs, as well as other presenters with deep expertise with what innovation requires and how it can best be supported. Presenters included  model developers such as Srikant Vasan, Founder and President, Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s, and Lynne Weisenbach, Vice Chancellor, Educational Access and Success, University System of Georgia, along with institutional leaders like James Hilton, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, University of Michigan, and organizational leaders such as Thomas Bailey, George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education and Director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • In response to what they heard, to work in small teams to shape new models of their own for a new institution, degree program, or student support environment.

Presenters covered the spectrum, from broad visions of the innovation landscape to the nitty-gritty of program design and execution. Discussions were often lively, occasionally heated in response to the views presented. But in their daily reflections, participants expressed their appreciation for the range and boldness of the perspectives they encountered.  Among the many thought-provoking sessions, the following seemed especially to resonate with participants:

“Disruptive Innovation: Southern New Hampshire University,” with Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University, and Clayton Christiansen, Faculty, Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, Harvard University
LeBlanc leads an institution that has created the groundbreaking competency-based model College for America; Christiansen, who serves on SNHU’s board, authored the The Innovator’s Dilemma and other equally influential works, including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. These two distinguished speakers sounded a common theme: we cannot design programs or services without truly understanding the needs of our customers and the job they are hiring us to do for them. In his remarks, Professor Christiansen emphasized that this concept of the “job to be done” may be even more important, as an idea, than disruption because it contributes materially to our ability to predict whether customers are going to buy a product or not. President LeBlanc further emphasized the critical importance of focus for an educational model: ”just do really really well the one exact thing you’re really really focused on.”

“Service Blueprinting,” Nancy Stephens, Associate Professor and Faculty Director of Executive Online Programs, Center for Services Leadership, Arizona State University

“Service excellence is all about keeping promises,” Professor Stephens began. In this session, the participants gained understanding of the ways in which managing a service is fundamentally different from managing a tangible product and were guided in seeing the experience they are giving customers from the customer’s point of view. And students do meet the definition of  customers, Stephens declared: they have money and they have choice. Participants had an opportunity, working in teams, to try their hands at developing a blueprint to improve customers’ experience.   This engaging hands-on session influenced the teams’ breakthrough designs -- but it also gave each participant a process to take home and work with immediately in his or her individual institution.

“Rethinking the Value Chain,” Burck Smith, CEO, Straighterline, and Ed Klonoski, President, Charter Oak State College

President Klonoski leads an institution exclusively focused on adult learners and on aggregating its students’ life experiences and formal educational experiences, evaluating them, and awarding credit and degrees based on them. Mr. Smith heads a new company which develops online courses that students can take, for $99 a credit, and transfer to the accredited institutions in which they are enrolled. They joined forces to make a provocative case for the disaggregation of higher education as we know it in an era of unprecedented student agency and choice. This session was particularly challenging:  of all the week’s presentations, it generated the most intense discussion.  In the session that immediately followed this one, “Concerns and Cautions in the Face of Opportunity,” Judith Eaton, President, Council for Higher Education Accreditation and Carol Schneider, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities, provided a distinct counterpoint and reminded everyone of the ongoing concerns about what new models may mean for the research enterprise and faculty scholarship role.

The Breakthrough Models Academy agenda included other useful sessions that provided perspectives on breaking the “Iron Triangle” of costs, quality, and access/completion; integrating innovation through the lenses of structural, political, human resources, and symbolic frames; design using the classic logic model first delineated by the Kellogg Foundation and now used widely by a range of foundations;  today’s underprepared students;  the disruption posed by MOOCs; and the K12 context and the Common Core. Having absorbed, applied, and in some instances challenged presenters’ views, the participants worked in their teams and with their coaches in the late afternoons, through dinner , and beyond. The full results of their efforts, in the form of twelve new model designs, will be available to the community and a panel of judges in a session at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference. We encourage you to join us for this session – or, if that’s not possible, to look for the video or animated presentations afterward on the EDUCAUSE website.