Changing Higher Ed Podcast 123 with Guest Ami Moyal: Creating a Continuous Improvement Culture in Higher Education
In this episode of Changing Higher Ed podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, a leading expert on change management in higher education, and Prof. Ami Moyal, President of Afeka, a top engineering college in Israel, discuss the case study of Moyal’s profound transformation of his institution’s culture to produce well-rounded engineers who are better prepared to meet the challenges of an ever-changing high tech workforce. Moyal and McNaughton summarize Afeka’s successful implementation of an engineering perspective to identify problems, define solutions, implement solutions through a process of ongoing assessment and change, and leverage change for future growth and development.
Prof. Moyal was named the third president of Afeka College of Engineering, a public college in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2014 after serving for six years as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Prior to that, he held several positions at Natural Speech Communication Ltd. in Israel, a developer of speech recognition products for telephony, including serving as CEO for seven years. He is an expert in human-machine interaction via speech recognition and founded and led the Afeka Center for Language Processing, a research and development center for spoken and written language processing.
When Moyal became president of Afeka after serving for seven years as the CEO of a high-tech company, his goal was ambitious: to transform the way every student at Afeka is trained.
That’s because while in the corporate world, he often was frustrated with the mismatch or gap that existed between the skills and experiences of the graduates that universities produced and the skills and experiences most needed by his company and others.
“I think that education is the most important mission of a society.”
For example, he found that recent graduates too often had good grades and technical expertise but lacked the so-called “soft skills”—what Moyal prefers to call “crucial skills”—of working and communicating efficiently with non-engineers on multidisciplinary teams.
Once at the helm of Afeka, Moyal launched a transformational effort to produce—and constantly assess—a graduate profile that narrows the gap between what graduates could offer a high-tech company and what these companies need.
Using an Engineering Design Process to Identify Higher Education Problems and Solutions
Afeka was doing well by all major metrics: admissions, enrollment, finances, general atmosphere, and so on. Most at the college considered any threats to the institution’s well-being minor, at most.
Indeed, Moyal found the first two years of initiating cultural change especially difficult. The proverbial stick came first, and then the carrot.
Moyal succeeded in persuading internal stakeholders that if Afeka did not change while the world its graduates were entering changed constantly, the college risked becoming irrelevant.
“Academics have a mentality that everybody else can change, but what we’re doing is just fine. It’s worked for 600 years. So why do we need to change it?”
He then involved all internal stakeholders in all aspects of the change process. A 50-member internal communications unit was created to keep faculty and staff updated on all developments.
At Afeka, like at most colleges and universities, academic programs were defined by the academic processes that supported them—the curriculum, courses, and degree requirements—and the faculty and students that fulfilled them.
Moyal flipped this approach on its head by helping Afeka’s faculty and staff think instead in terms of the engineering design process. First, they focused on outputs by creating a profile of their ideal graduate, then considered how the institution’s four-year engineering education process could be revamped to produce these graduates.
That meant asking the high-tech world what types of graduates it needed and reviewing the findings of current research on the topic. The result of this learning phase was the profile of the “ultimate engineer” who ideally would graduate from Afeka—in other words, Afeka’s ultimate output.
Next, after defining the outputs, stakeholders turned their focus to the inputs—incoming students, who, like their counterparts worldwide, clearly find the traditional classroom lecture model much less appealing than previous generations.
The result? Faculty and staff were convinced that the only way to produce the graduates defined in the graduate profile they developed was to change everything about the way they taught students.
“You cannot oppose implementing a change to achieve the graduate profile if you have been involved in defining it.”
Students resisted the idea. Moyal not only anticipated this but also emphasized it to faculty as an example of the ongoing need for agility in change management. Student input thus became an important metric in the annual assessment that faculty were asked to perform.
Implementing Continuous Improvement and Leveraging It for Future Growth
Today—six years later—Afeka has in place internal engines for change that benefit students and employers alike.
These include many new research centers, as well as centers to help students learn, and a major new administrative unit that provides extracurricular activities to promote well-rounded and well-prepared students.
The curriculum, likewise, has changed dramatically with many nontraditional courses and students are learning more in teams, as well as beyond campus in industries, hospitals, and other real-world settings. In addition, keeping class sizes to an average of 32 students facilitates in-depth discussions and group work.
Throughout it, Moyal and his staff have closely monitored the college’s capacity for growth and the faculty’s willingness to accept change. So far, the year-by-year increases have been around 10 percent, for a 50 percent increase in both student enrollment (now stabilized at around 3,500) and in faculty and staff (to about 200). And despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a general downturn in student applications elsewhere, Afeka receives about 12,000 student applications for just 1,000 available slots each year.
“And now, we are like software development: implementing, correcting, implementing, correcting.”
Still, the institutional focus remains centered on continuous improvement: continually measuring, validating, assessing, and implementing it.
One example is the annual survey of graduates to find out where they are working, how much they are being paid and similar information. Moyal is pleased that more than half are working in research and development—the heart of the high-tech world—and earning good salaries.
Now that the assessment and change process is firmly embedded in the institutional culture, what’s next for Afeka? Moyal has three ambitious goals:
- Moving beyond engineering. Programs in computer science and data science have been added, and one in brain science is in development. After that, Moyal expects to offer multidisciplinary programs between engineering and science
- Expanding the master’s degree program to include a thesis requirement
- Building a new campus from scratch in south Tel Aviv. The design process is well underway, and Moyal said the move would allow the campus to grow significantly in a more socially active part of the city
Three Takeaways for Presidents and Boards
- We should do things out of value and not out of convenience. The pandemic made it very convenient to teach or study from home, but there is real value in coming to campus.
- We need to do the right thing consistently. This means providing students with a proper and relevant educational process that cultivates trust in us to offer such a process.
- Change does not happen in a year or two. It’s constant, and most people cannot live in a constant state of change. A president should establish a culture that encourages change and accepts failure. There will be a lot of pilot programs and many failures, and we need to accept and analyze them, reach a conclusion, and move forward.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.
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