Shifting to a "Rapid Prototype" Model to Hurdle Education Attainment Barriers

I recently focused in this space on the need for a serious conversation about how the higher education community could work to improve academic credit mobility, explore alternative business models and balance the tension between career-oriented education and a broad liberal arts curriculum as a way to help more Americans earn a college degree or credential. But a year at the American Council on Education (ACE) spent exploring postsecondary education attainment and innovation strategies for achieving this goal has helped me identify some cultural tendencies deeply entrenched in the American higher education system that also serve as barriers to achieving our attainment goals.

Like many long-held cultural practices, there are valid reasons for why these emerged as part of the academic ecosystem and have worked well in the past and in specific contexts, but perhaps it is time to take a page from the technology industry as we grapple with boosting attainment rates and confront other higher education challenges in today's complex and fast-changing environment.

Systematic inquiry and discovery versus rapid prototyping

The United States remains second to none in research productivity and the number of life saving, world-changing discoveries that have emerged from our universities. Within this system of academic-based research and development, the systematic application of the scientific method, reliance on objective data, and peer review are the foundation of our success. I am personally comforted that everything from drugs and medical devices to the design of safer roads and seismically sound buildings are subject to measured and steady rigorous testing and analysis.

Rigorous, systematic research methods are essential in these contexts, but in a global economy where two-thirds of future jobs will require some type of college degree or credential, does the higher education community really have time for this type of approach in figuring out how to quickly boost attainment rates? No. But I fear this culture of systematic, rigorous testing that has been so embedded in academe may introduce unnecessary barriers to important innovations that could drive attainment.

I propose a different approach, one that is also highly effective and that has fostered its own world-changing discoveries: the "rapid prototyping" model most notably applied in the technology industry. Within this model, designers develop a "good enough" initial solution, then commit to regularly, rapidly and continuously improving it. This is not a shortcut or end run around more traditional methods--rapid prototyping is just a different way to discover, design and develop.

Despite a decade or more of our focused attention, as a nation we have barely moved the dial on postsecondary attainment and we have regressed significantly in our international standing. We need to move more quickly. Shifting our academic culture to also include rapid prototyping is an idea worth exploring in contexts--like attainment--where it may be highly relevant and appropriate, such as the application of student learning analytics or expanding the amount of credit accepted for prior learning.

Not-invented-here mentality versus copy-and-share-everything

Individualism is another core American value that is firmly entrenched in our higher education system. Faculty and students are rewarded for their originality and individual achievement. This has served us well both within higher education and our broader society. Of course, in many areas of the academy, we are migrating to a collaborative, interdisciplinary way of working, but the rewards for individual achievement are still hardwired into the system.

Individual achievement is a vital motivator, but it can lead to unnecessary redundancy that is not useful or appropriate in every context. For example, within the open educational resource movement, faculty are more than willing to share resources they have developed, but they are less likely to use resources developed by others. Deposits into the system outnumber withdrawals. Is this an efficient use of a valuable resource?

In my own review of the hundreds of studies on the variables that may influence and interventions that may increase attainment, I have also observed a high degree of redundancy and an apparent unwillingness to borrow and share from the work of others. Institutions around the country are achieving tremendous results. Yes, our institutions are unique and serve different student population with their own unique challenges, but might there be some commonalities among them? Is this "thousand flowers blooming" approach having the impact we need? President Obama's recent compilation of promising practices in student access and completion illustrates the need to aggregate and exploit our collective wisdom in new ways.

Within the context of achieving our attainment goals, we need to think about short-circuiting the culture of individual achievement and being more willing to embrace a collective sharing mode. To encourage that, we need a robust system in place to aggregate, sort, and disseminate all the good ideas out there so more institutions can figure out what might work best for them.