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Suitable Innovator

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Ep1: Disruptive Innovation and a Post-Pandemic Campus

Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Professor of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh

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The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student engagement has been both significant and disruptive within higher education. But it has also produced a number of “just in time” innovations across our college campuses.  

The move to online or some type of remote learning over the past year has prompted the revision of traditional educational models, approaches and techniques at a necessary, yet rapid pace.  Issues of how to maintain student engagement in asynchronous teaching environments, how to facilitate virtual experiential or learning opportunities, and how to address the ever-present “zoom fatigue” all pose unique, complex and pervasive challenges for student engagement.  Beyond technical issues (e.g., bandwidth, technology availability, user skill development, platform uniformity), the need to maintain a strong sense of connectedness, knowledge-sharing and involved campus community will remain both a challenge and opportunity as we re-envision our “post-COVID” learning environments.  

The complex challenges of the pandemic have also placed issues of psychological well-being and mental health on center stage, deepening existing disparities on our campuses based on factors such as socio-economic status, race and rural locations.

Disruptive innovation--a theory introduced over 20 years ago--appears very relevant in today’s environment.  This concept outlines a unique situation or set of contingencies that produce a “disruptive” impact to people, processes and especially traditional organizational approaches.  While the word ‘disruptive’ typically invokes a negative view, disruptive innovation in higher education can create positive change.  This innovation can take the form of new approaches, changes in processes, identification of new target audiences, designing different value-added solutions or creating new tools for assessments and evaluation.  

For those who are able to respond quickly, disruptive innovation can quickly turn followers into the followed, as the industry takes note..   New ways to deliver learning content, reaching different student segments, supporting faculty development efforts  and rethinking financial education models are just a handful of disruptive innovations that are already taking place within higher education - not after but during this global pandemic. 

One key to being an innovator is rethinking, redefining and recreating how we approach student engagement.  Our colleagues who are experts in design thinking would remind us that tackling complex problems should start by “empathizing”.  This means employing empathy as a tool to better understand the impact on others as it relates to the issue, problem or opportunity at hand.  This also means the complex process of setting aside our embedded assumptions, traditional models and hidden biases in order to gain new insights into an otherwise familiar situation.  Such will be the case as we seek to rethink, redesign and recreate student engagement within our post-pandemic campuses.

We already know that student engagement is a key driver of learning, education and career outcomes.  As the national survey of student engagement identifies, “what students do during college counts more in terms of desired outcomes than who they are or even where they go to college”.  

What student engagement looks like post-pandemic should begin with empathizing and learning from key aspects of the student experience before, during and after the pandemic. It is also important to address cognitive, behavioral and affective dimensions of the student engagement experience, exploring self-efficacy, competence, satisfaction and resilience among all segments of our student population.  Clearly, student engagement will remain a top priority for enhancing critical learning outcomes.

As the number of definitions of student engagement are many and diverse, it is important to recognize that engagement must involve all aspect of the student experience – both academic and non-academic; both inside and outside of the classroom; curricular, co-curricular as well as extra-curricular activities; and across traditional and non-traditional learning environments.  Engagement must also meet the needs of diverse student populations as well as stakeholders who are essential to the learning experience such as faculty, staff, leadership, alumni, mentors and community partners.  Understanding engagement across different life phases (e.g., first-year versus graduating, undergraduate versus graduate or professional, etc.) is also critical as we move forward. 

For our ongoing discussion, the additional lens of competency-based learning will also be important and may likely increase within a post-pandemic campus.  The competency-based learning approach is outcome-based, student-centered and necessarily flexible across learning environments, student populations, professions, disciplines and other key dimensions.  

While competency-based learning has received some necessary critique, it has several benefits including being adaptable to changes in student needs, institutional priorities, societal demands and environmental challenges.  It also fits well within key educational approaches such as personalized education, standard-based models and high-impact educational practices to name a few.  Also, situated learning would support the potential for agility within our learning systems as a positive aspect of competency-based models when dynamic as well as disruptive forces occur.

So, how should we think about issues such as competency-based learning, disruptive innovation and the need to re-envision student engagement in our post-pandemic learning environments?  What kind of conversations are needed on our campuses as we rethink, redesign and recreate student engagement into the future?  How do we learn from the disruption of the pandemic in ways that help us to become more innovative and impactful?  

In order to stimulate our thinking, conversation and knowledge-sharing on these and other compelling questions, this monthly blog series will highlight critical questions and ideas on the ways in which we can challenge our thinking, assumptions and strategies across our campuses as we prepare for a “new normal” within a post-pandemic learning environment.  Each month a different issue or topic will be presented in order to stimulate our thinking, dialog and collective innovation.  

Our hope is that you will be part of this ongoing dialog so that we can learn both with each other and from each other.  We will provide a platform for your thoughts and comments along with a monthly roundtable to stimulate creative thinking on important topics such as re-envisioning student engagement, competency-based models, addressing disparities within student engagement, how data can impact or obstruct student engagement outcomes and other topics that will surface over the next several months.  We look forward to your input, ideas, and contributions.

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Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Murrell, Ph.D.

Professor of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh