Leading Academic Transformation in Real Time: Introducing the LAT Circle

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A roomful of higher education leaders and faculty were gathered around tables. The space was abuzz with conversations, which continued at a quick pace, as all involved participated with a palpable sense of urgency.

They were being timed.

Like hackathons that have been popularized in startup culture, this gathering brought together individuals from a variety of institutions and backgrounds to propose workable solutions to critical problems. Only they had 30 minutes, not 48 hours — and this was about programmatic or even systemic change in higher education — not a coding exercise.

This was about sharing wisdom to generate long-term impact, in a hurry.

At the 2016 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, members of the Leading Academic Transformation (LAT) Advisory Committee piloted the LAT Circle, a small-group, rapid problem-solving methodology.

It was the idea of Shannon McCarty, Associate Vice President of the Center for Innovation in Learning at National University, who had experienced a similar effort at an event supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“This kind of brainstorming via a collective process seemed to be an interesting way to generate discussion and interaction,” McCarty said. “When we had been presented with facilitating something — knowing all the minds that’d be in the room — we thought it’d be a good chance for problem solving, and adjusted it to fit that event and the group.”

Jennifer Stringer, ‎Associate CIO, Academic Engagement at UC Berkeley, co-facilitated the first event.

“When Shannon brought this up to the rest of the LAT advisory committee, we had all been talking about how to get people engaged and have an event end with something meaningful that they could take back to their institution,” Stringer explained. “We began talking about hacking a problem when she mentioned. We all said ‘Aha! This is so perfect; it enables someone to solve a problem in real-time on their campus.’ For one, it gets everyone involved in higher thinking especially on academic change piece, which is so complicated and so hard. Yet we’re all trying to do this together.”

The committee’s enthusiasm was present from the beginning.

“What’s so fascinating in particular about this process is that it was very structured,” Stringer said. “When we debriefed afterwards, people loved the rigor and structure this brought to the table. While it was hard to stop talking when the timer went off, it was amazing that within 30 minutes they had a ton of ideas to solve a problem.”

McCarty agreed. The universality of the approach presented another immediate benefit to participants.

“As we work in education, I always think we can leverage best practices — so, for example, if folks enjoyed this structure we could use it as a model,” she said. “It could be applicable to anyone in the room, who could then take it back to their institution as a means of ideating and effecting change.”

“It was a great turnout for 8am,” Stringer added. “People came and felt really energized when they left, rather than drained.”

The event did involve pre-planning, because, as McCarty explains, they wanted the focus to be on solving actual problems that others were experiencing.

“We solicited ideas from the advisory committee; we also disseminated a LAT community survey so that members could vote on various issues,” she said. “We asked them what they’re dealing with currently, as well as what they would like to discuss. Roughly five topics rose to the top. We then reached out to individuals who had submitted those to ensure that each one would be represented.”

“It’s a real bottom-up approach to engaging people from the beginning,” Stringer noted. “With the surveys distributed in advance, folks participating truly felt as if they had ‘skin in the game’ rather than just passively attending a group discussion.”

Topics included: accessibility;competency-based education; strategic planning for academic transformation; change management for academic transformation; learning data and sharing/privacy issues; focused learner pathways; and financial models for innovation.

Those who had volunteered and provided materials would be going through the process; they’d kick off their table’s effort with a two to three minute discussion of the problem. Each reflected beforehand and arrived prepared for action.

“At each table we had the topic leaders, and allowed anyone participating to self-select what they were most interested in and was most relevant to them,” McCarty explained. “We only did brief introductions along the lines of ‘who is in a two-year vs. a four-year institution?’ We divided participants not by roles, but by interests. Once everyone was at the table, we needed a facilitator so that all could provide input — so each table had a designated timekeeper. These people took their job very seriously! We also had someone who was capturing all the information.”

“What surprised me the most were two things: first, the engaging conversation,” she continued. “People were really trying to help each other by presenting useful ideas, including similar initiatives they’d tested at their institution. They were really organically grown ideas that others could take back to their institutions and implement. The second surprising element was that by the end, everyone said they wished they had more time to continue the process.”

“I was most impressed by the level of engagement,” Stringer said. “People walked away feeling really inspired by the process more than anything else. Attendance was great as well, as there were nearly three dozen people who attended the inaugural LAT Circle in Anaheim.”

The effort was so successful that it was reinstituted at the 2017 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, with topics including:

  • Faculty Incentives to Innovate & Tenure Process;
  • Institutional Innovation Commitment & Culture;
  • Career Path & Staff Skill Development;
  • Prescribed Content vs. Academic Freedom;
  • and Effective Communication Strategies for Instructional Technology.

Participants were primed with a warmup: each table contained a familiar object, from which teams brainstormed as many new products as they could in two minutes. Criticism was forbidden, and there were no ‘bad’ ideas.

McCarty and Stringer agree that this exercise lends itself particularly well to LAT members.

“In looking across the LAT membership, you see a lot of passion about really transforming higher education,” McCarty noted. “When you gather a group of people who are passionate about changing the landscape, and embrace it as a means of moving forward…in this activity, that passion really comes out, in real time. It’s about getting the right folks in the room to huddle around really important topics.”

Stringer added that “higher education as a whole and people who do the work we do in academic engagement and tech — and even research technology — are all grappling with these questions.”

“What EDUCAUSE has done with the LAT community is unique in a variety of ways,” she said. “It’s true that many higher ed professionals and edtech companies are talking about transformation in an academic context, including all kinds of discussions about blended learning and tech impacting pedagogical practices and student success; or how learning data and analytics serve as predictors and enable the design of student-specific interventions. There are many organizations out there that want to sell you potential solutions.”

“What makes this kind of community unique is that it’s about higher ed leaders coming together to problem solve within their space,” Stringer said. “Rather than hearing what others think ought to be done, this is about tackling critical issues together within a community of practice. That community-based approach is not something I’ve witnessed in other academic forums.”

McCarty agreed. “LAT has a different feel altogether; these conversations and approaches to harnessing collective wisdom aren’t something I’m seeing in other communities of practice.”

“One thing has frequently come up in LAT,” Stringer added, “is how do we build the leaders of tomorrow who are ready to address challenges that we’re already seeing and we know will be coming in the future?”

“It’s not a CIO problem; while it’s helpful if CIOs are thinking about it, this is actually an academic technology leader problem. What do we need to do from a professional development perspective, and what path is there for their careers? For example, I came from the library side of higher ed; Shannon [McCarty] is a faculty member…how do we cultivate professionals of varying backgrounds to be the leaders of tomorrow in this important area?”

Stringer believes that leadership in higher education is arriving at an interesting crossroads.

“We’ve been talking about leadership a lot as an advisory committee; while I can’t say that we have a proliferation of answers, we’re recognizing the idea that the CIO as we know them in higher education wasn’t around 30 years ago,” she explained.

“The role simply evolved as technology became a greater and greater enabler on campuses. I see the same thing happening here. There’s a role evolving, although I’m not sure what we’ll call it. It’s taking a more prominent position in the tech and pedagogy space than it has before. We’re thinking about what that looks like what it involves, which will inevitably be a little different at each institution. Yet we already know that there’s something unique about the particular skillset and knowledge base this emerging role will require.”

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.