Innovation, Accreditation, and Intervention and Inspiration Science

photo from HLC conference 2015Fellow veterans of the academy will recall accreditation events as a place where we all too often perfected our pitches to assure our fellow educators that our models and strategies were as status quo—and therefore as credible—as possible. In fact, these events were often why and how “best practicism” took hold—e.g., do it like them and you’ll get approved. That was clearly not the case at this year’s Higher Learning Commission (HLC) annual meeting.

The new president of the Higher Learning Commission, Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley, walked to the microphone and laid down the gauntlet, calling for innovation on purpose.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you step outside your safety zone. But you must do so with a laser focus on quality assurance, and evidence-based goals to improve student outcomes. If you do it right, it will silence the naysayers. If you rush into innovation toward a goal of increasing enrollment and shoring up your financial challenges, you will lose sight of the only stakeholder that matters – the students. Let’s work together to silence the detractors” – Dr. Gellman-Danley

photo of HLC president

President of the Higher Learning Commission, Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley

She outlined a veritable top ten of key familiar challenges facing the field including:

  • High costs of college under attack
  • Student debt and default rates skyrocketing
  • Learning value-added discussions, especially around the value of a degree
  • Focus on training over educating the whole person
  • States divesting in higher education
  • Competition pushing cost- and corner-cutting
  • Federal compliance demands on the rise
  • Shifting student demographics, especially the rise of adult learners
  • Alternative paths to college credit and degrees, most notably competency-based models
  • The changing role of accreditation agencies like HLC

To rise to these challenges, she argued innovation was a must—though it must be done mindfully and strategically. She urged against lurching from fad to fad in hopes of shoring up finances or appeasing political forces, and instead, launching innovations systematically with a sharp focus on authentically helping students. And following this call for innovation on purpose, came session after session highlighting what I call intervention and inspiration science.

Some of the innovations showcased were pure intervention science, using data to pinpoint students falling behind and then targeting and testing outreach, and measuring the impact. Others were more inspiration science, not necessarily focused on students “at-risk,” but focused on finding ways to help even the best of the best see their next milestone and move aggressively to achieve it. Many of the sessions that mentioned non-cognitive factors like tenacity, grit, and mindset were often focused on intervention science. While many of the sessions that focused on engagement more broadly leaned into the inspiration science. Whether it was a student retention initiative, deeper learning strategy, next-gen technology tool, or a new delivery model, elements of intervention or inspiration science were there.

hlc logo and nameWhile some would argue intervention science comes from a deficit mindset and is too limiting, others would counter that inspiration science might ignore dangerous triggers that could truly hurt some students’ chances of ever succeeding. Both camps make compelling cases. I remember hearing a Title III project leader once argue that, “It’s really not helpful to throw a drowning man a self-help book.” You need to get them to safety first before they can be inspired. And of course, the classic admonition of “nobody rises to low expectations” is often used by those advocates of inspiration. Indeed, if the only aspiration is survival, deeper learning and excellence is hard to achieve.

Of course, as we take on Barbara’s admonition of innovation on purpose, we’ll need to both raise the ceiling and the floor as we adopt a thoughtful try and test mentality—as outlined in Seven Strategies for Analytics on the Road Ahead. We’ll need the best of thoughtfully and effectively designed interventions with struggling students and compelling inspirations with students of all kinds, including those who are ready to learn faster and deeper than traditional systems can typically accommodate. We’ll need to learn together how, when, why, and in what way to do each; but both should be building blocks of the work we do to innovate against the challenge of helping more students succeed. As President Gellman-Danley put it so eloquently:

“. . . this is a very challenging time for higher education. You can continue to do as you’ve always done, or embrace the kinds of innovation that will shift the narrative for decades. You have a voice; use it. You have the education; do not waste it in silence.”

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