Let’s say a college wants to embrace new learning techniques and reinvent how it operates. How does the institution go about it?
For Southern New Hampshire University, the answer was to create a sandbox—a space where professors and administrators can brainstorm and test new approaches, and where tech startups can pitch their latest tools to college leaders. Since its creation last year, the Sandbox Collaborative (as it is called) has become an “internal consultancy” for the university. The lab has even teamed up with a venture capital firm to invest in early-stage startups.
This is actually the university’s second big effort to set up a reinvention lab. The first, several years ago, came up with the idea of creating a low-cost competency-based degree program called College for America. Then the team that came up with the idea turned their efforts to bring it to life.
Even at a place known for embracing change, the new lab has faced hiccups. The sandbox’s executive director, Michelle Weise, says she’s learned that the fastest way to make a disruptive change at a university is to go slow, by taking time to get input from various campus stakeholders. Her mantra: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
We sat down with Weise for this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast, to get a tour of this unusual lab and hear why she thinks colleges need to build this kind of innovation lab.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).
EdSurge: In your work at Southern New Hampshire, and throughout much of your career, there’s this assumption that college needs to change—that it needs disruptive innovation. But there are plenty professors I talk to who don’t agree. How do you convince someone that colleges need reinvention?
Weise: The problem is that the narrative is cast so that disruptive innovation is held in contrast to sustaining innovation. That incremental performance improvement for a university are bad, and disruptive innovations are the beacon that we need to be moving toward. That simply isn’t true.
There is a real possibility for creating lasting and transformative change with incremental improvements. But saying, ‘things should remain exactly as they are,’ only works in a context in which higher education serves more like a luxury good. It’s not that higher education needs to change, but it needs to tune itself to the changing needs of the folks who are in need of higher education. So, for all of those non-traditional potential consumers of education—who are looking for something different where they actually need a discreet set of skills to get them to the next level—they need something that helps make them more marketable and is aligned to the labor market.
We can’t just always make this easy binary that training is very separate from what we should do in college. That there’s something sacred about kind of that general liberal arts education and training is something else. There’s no reason why they should be somehow mutually exclusive.
And even if we want to stick to traditional liberal-arts models, that is perfectly okay. But we just need to make very clear to our students how those skills translate into the workforce because they don’t know until they’re in it. And, I think even sometimes ten years down the road they realize “Oh, so when I was writing that 25-page research paper, you know that actually does give me really important skills and project management.”
So you call your innovation center at Southern New Hampshire a sandbox. What does someone see when they walk into the space?
It’s this beautiful open environment—it looks a lot like a startup, people often say. There are no closed areas in the lab. And the reason why that it is this sort of decentralized structure that has fostered so much growth at our university has worked well, but we’re at the point where on certain issues around student success, we really need to come and collaborate.
What’s an example of an idea that’s come out of the Sandbox?
We had our college of online and continuing education that now teaches approximately 90,000 students. We’ve had the academic team there come to us and say, “We’ve read a lot about online retention strategies, but we feel like there’s probably something we’re missing. Can you help us do some of the research? We just don’t have the bandwidth to think about this issue.” So, we created a really extensive white paper for them. We are kind of an internal consultancy for the university.
Now what we’re realizing is, we’ve produced enough of these kinds of documents that we’re pretty sure that a lot of other higher education institutions are probably thinking about the same problems. And, so now we’re thinking about tailoring these to make them more consumable for a public audience—to put our white papers, blogs, and we’re now featuring some experts in podcast interviews.
What’s a more out-there idea you’ve been pitched?
Let me just give you an example of one of those sorts of over-the-horizon innovations. We do a lot of work with education technology. And, we do a lot of vetting of vendors and we help kind of our existing units think about education technology and how they might deploy it better. But, now we’re thinking about potentially working with a venture capital firm to think about a seed fund for startups. So, that’s kind of like a different way of approaching that—just seed funding potential startups.
We’re also thinking about the way in which higher education is currently being unbundled and how it may be rebundled in the future. Because for a lot of adult learners it’s great that there are so many different learning pathways out there, but they don’t know how to make heads or tails of it. So, how do we build in a process maybe we’ll get to where we at Southern New Hampshire University are not always the teachers or the instructors in the process, but we’re touching their lives in some way—whether that’s as an advisor, whether that’s an aggregator of different other pathways. And that requires different partnerships with other organizations because we simply can’t teach everything.
So you’ve set up an internal R&D unit, like at a big company. I know a lot of professors and folks at colleges get nervous and upset about the idea of treating the higher education as a product at a company. Have you heard that kind of push back?
I think what puts people off people is if they think that somehow there’s a central place in the organization at our university that is the place that is responsible for strategy and innovation. Because it happens across the university. It’s not just in the Sandbox.
But in terms of R&D, what requires a lot of socialization is the idea that failure is part of this process. And so it’s very difficult in higher ed to normalize the idea of failure and risk taking because it can look so bad if something doesn’t go according to plan. The idea of beta testing is not a normal idea in higher education.
You need your stakeholders bought into a potential initiative, but at the same time, we can’t be apologizing for the detours and the things we’re learning along the way. And all of those detours and parts of the iterative process are informative, and we have to see those things as real moments of value.
The thing that keeps coming back to me over and over again in everything we do is you have to go slow to go fast. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. It’s unnatural feeling sometimes to go that slow. Especially with the kind of meetings that you have to put together on a campus you go really slow. So it can feel like you’re not seeing the fruits of your labor. But, if you skip it, it’s just a mess.
How did you end up getting into this in the first place? What brought you to this point?
I have probably the most unconventional way of getting to this kind of a position. I was an English professor, so I spent a good bulk of my 20’s going through a doctoral process, and I was a tenure-track professor at Skidmore College teaching 20th-century American fiction and poetry and 21st-century Asian-American fiction and poetry, and it was a wonderful experience. I also realized that I didn’t have the same passion, and I also realized when you’re teaching in college that graduate school did not teach you how to teach in college. And, so I felt very ill-equipped to do what I was supposed to be doing. I was teaching Asian-American literature to 20 white affluent students at a time, and I was trying to figure out how do I impact a more diverse student population?
When I was thinking about what else might be out there my advisors from my dissertation were saying: “Are you nuts? People would kill for your job.” But I made the conscious decision to think about that, and we moved back to California, and I worked for an edtech startup. We were working with service members transitioning out of the military and that is really where I found kind of my passion is serving under-served students. It was an amazing experience.
And I couldn’t have got that role had I not been in academia because they wanted someone to serve as that kind of translator between faculty and the startup. So I was their vice president of academic affairs for seven months before they had to pivot.
Through that process, I reached out to our board member who was the co-founder of the Christensen Institute. What’s interesting is when we were working with service members I got a real in-depth look at every non-profit provider’s version of online education. Because everyone wanted to partner with us to help service members while they were deployed start accessing.
And so that was kind of my first sort of landscape perspective of all the things that were out there. When I worked at the Christensen Institute and led the higher education practice there, every single entrepreneur came to us and showed us what they were building. Every startup wanted us to call them disruptive. So I got this wonderful kind of private sector non-profit bird’s eye view into everything going on with education technology.
The article adapted from EdSurge