The Road Back to Higher Education

Aug 2, 2015 by

In 2012, I left Higher Education to work in the software world. It was bittersweet, because I had finished a Ph.D. on Higher Education Leadership only one year before I left. My decision to leave was a hard one, but I couldn’t see an effective solution path to change learning within traditional higher education. I studied effort after effort to make changes within departments, institutions, and systems, only to see that potential innovations to higher education rarely moved the needle very far from the traditional steady-state.

Maria at PhD Graduation

A proud graduate, but disheartened by the decreasing funding for higher education.

The semester that I finished my Ph.D. was the same one that huge cuts to higher education were announced in several states, most notably in Pennsylvania, where the higher education funding by the state was reduced by 50%.  By 2013, per-student higher education spending was lower than pre-recession levels in 48 states.

From the software world, I have watched as MOOCs, Coding Camps, and Microdegrees have been hyped as the next great thing to disrupt higher education. There’s no doubt that higher ed has been disrupted, though I would say it is more because increased regulation, lower funding, and decreased student enrollments put significant pressure on colleges and universities to increase efficiencies. While innovation like MOOCs show us that there is a tremendous market for learning outside of degree programs, these innovations are not focused at producing more teachers, nurses, or doctors – we still need higher education and traditional degree programs. We just need more affordable ways to get that first degree as well as flexible systems to update post-degree training, and allow quick pivots into other careers as the pool of available jobs shifts.

Finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that our institutions of higher education needed to move faster. Rather than taking years to develop new courses and programs, we needed to find ways to do it in months and without affecting students already in-program. In many degree programs, the curriculum needs to be adapted to the changing world every semester, not every 5-10 years. When I left higher education, I had a plan to learn everything I could about how the software industry uses agile techniques to iterate on solutions and pivot fast. I hoped that one day, I’d find an educational institution that would see the value in this unique learning experience, and take me back so that I could put what I had learned into practice (both from software and leadership). It was a gamble, but I knew that I couldn’t mentally survive at an institution where the pace of change was measured in decades instead of months.

The software industry was an interesting place to learn. It forced me to start thinking about what an agile institution of higher education would look like. What would you “bug” in a college or university? What processes could you refine through iteration? How would you explain the benefits of agile methodology to the stakeholders (faculty, administrators, and students)? Where should an institution be agile and where should it be traditional? This thought experiment has been occupying a processor in my mind, quietly chugging away, producing ideas and working through the implications.

2015-07-20 06.17.58

After a stunning sunrise, I saw this rainbow on my first day of work at WGU. Perhaps it was a sign.

Now I’m excited to announce that I’ve rejoined Higher Education as the Director of Learning Design for Western Governor’s University.  If you’re not familiar with WGU, it is an incredible institution (non-profit and accredited). The degrees are competency based (no grades), the classes are all online, students can begin a program of study any month, learning materials are provided to students at no additional cost, and the tuition is affordable. WGU separates learning, coaching, and assessment into distinct branches of the institution, providing a very unique and flexible structure.

As Director of Learning Design, I am responsible for the design of the student learning experience (from course design to software ease of use). It is an opportunity to help an already innovative institution incorporate agile processes throughout the learning and course design process. I think I’ve landed in the right place and I can’t wait to see what our design team is going to accomplish in the next few years!

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