3 Ways Universities Can Insource Innovation

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Whether students enroll in college because it’s the expected next step after high school or they’re trying to change the trajectory of their lives, what is most important is that they succeed.

This is why my team and I focus on innovative solutions that help higher education institutions ensure successful outcomes for their students. As the CEO of one of Fast Company’s “10 Most Innovative Companies in Education” and one of Inc.’s “16 Startups Poised to Disrupt the Education Market,” I have a unique perspective on the changes occurring in higher education.

While the use of advanced technology in education has been increasing rapidly for decades now, many colleges and universities lack the resources needed to drive technological innovation from within. Consequently, these institutions turn to external experts for help, often finding themselves dependent upon consultants and software vendors for the long term.

Online education is a great example. There has been a dramatic increase in the outsourcing of academic functions over the past several years — especially in online education. However, many of these institutions are now bringing these programs back in-house, with just 34 percent of institutional CIOs and senior campus IT staff seeing long-term outsourcing as a viable strategy.

Fortunately, there’s a better option. Rather than outsource innovation to an outside organization, colleges can bring in a partner to help build their internal capacity and speed up progress. As the institution develops its internal abilities, it weans itself from reliance on the partner, leveraging only the capabilities it does wish to replicate in-house. In this way, insourcing innovation effectively reduces risk and expedites time-to-benefit without fostering dependency.

Here are three areas in which colleges and universities should look to insource innovation:

1. Course Materials

It doesn’t make sense for each institution to develop its own course materials, yet dependency on outside course material providers can prove expensive for students and the institution. That’s where open educational resources (OERs) come in.

OERs are teaching, learning, evaluation, and research materials available for free educational use. By adopting OERs, institutions are able to benefit from one another’s innovations in teaching pedagogy and technology.

One of the longest-running OER initiatives is the OpenCourseWare project from MIT, which has released materials for more than 2,300 courses over the past 15 years. Instructors, librarians, and other institutional staff are free to use and adapt the materials under a Creative Commons license.

At Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan, 10 professors signed up for an OER pilot program, revising a single course so it used only free learning materials. The program saved students $200,000 in one year.

2. Online Learning

As mentioned earlier, online learning is commonly outsourced in higher education, but insourcing innovation works wonderfully here, too. For example, Educators Serving Educators (ESE), a division of Excelsior College in Albany, New York, helps colleges develop their own online learning initiatives.

By working with schools to develop skills and technology to support online course development and delivery, ESE helps organizations create their own equity and intellectual property.

ESE has built partnerships with a variety of institutions, including the University of New Haven, the University of Bridgeport, and Wheelock College. For some, the primary motivation for launching an online initiative internally was the ability to avoid the multi-year revenue-share agreements required by online program management firms. Other motivators included maintaining more control of their brands or ensuring that new online initiatives aligned closely with existing programs.

Regardless of the motivation, through partnerships with ESE, institutions have access to the expertise ESE has acquired throughout years of successful online programming at Excelsior College. The ultimate outcome is not only a new online program, but also internal knowledge and experience with the 21st-century best practices necessary to serve today’s post-traditional learners.

3. Ed Tech Development

Many of the most revolutionary developments in consumer technology have roots in faculty research, yet most institutions aren’t playing an active role in the development of innovative educational technologies.

Pennsylvania State University is one institution that’s bucking the trend. It recently launched the Penn State EdTech Network, a partnership among members of the Penn State community and leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs in education technology. Complete with office, manufacturing, and research space for partners to co-locate on campus, the network has already engaged a number of leading companies, investors, incubators, and others since it launched in August 2015.

Acting as a hub for ed tech innovation, Penn State is accelerating the development of its internal capabilities while providing valuable opportunities for students, faculty, corporate partners, and others to collaborate on technology development projects. As a result, they’re breaking down barriers between public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit entities that share common goals.

In the end, it’s important to remember that society thrives when students succeed, and students succeed when the institutions that serve them are empowered to maintain the best possible student experience. By insourcing innovation, institutions can tap the collective expertise of the entire higher education ecosystem in a way that enables them to independently and continuously enhance their offerings.

About the Author: Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.