Curriculum Innovation Through Higher Ed Partnerships:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Anthony Wutoh | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 082

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Curriculum Innovation through Higher Ed Partnerships

Howard University has fostered curriculum innovation through creating partnerships with top industry leaders. The Washington, D.C. institution has created collaborative efforts with Google and Amazon, among others, that are supporting the preparation of students and ensuring that Howard’s programs and courses remain at the forefront of learning.

Creating Partnerships for Curriculum Improvement

Howard recently signed an agreement with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to support the university’s computer science program and to establish a center for applied data science and analytics. This partnership started a couple of years ago when Amazon decided to create a second headquarters in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. Howard and other area academic institutions expressed an interest in partnering with the company in relation to workforce needs, curriculum improvement, and program development. University leaders believed that this partnership would improve student learning opportunities and job options while also ensuring that Howard’s academic efforts were aligned with industry needs.

To start the conversation about their latest partnership, the university’s leaders leveraged existing relationships. The university already had a connection to Amazon Studios, which works with Howard Entertainment Program.  Because of that relationship, Howard was able to connect to individuals in other Amazon units. These conversations focused on creating intentional partnerships that would develop the best programs in support of students.

Center for Innovation

Howard’s Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics, which will be supported by AWS, will bring faculty who work in these areas in various colleges across Howard together. This center will create interdisciplinary opportunities to facilitate faculty and student collaboration.

Through this partnership, AWS will assist the university in analyzing proposed programs and classes in data science, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. The corporation also will assist with curriculum development and help ensure that students have access to state-of-the-art technologies. Amazon also plans to collaborate with Howard by offering internships and experiential opportunities for students. This effort also may lead to additional partnerships in other areas.

The center’s innovative and collaborative approach should help negate the tendency of specialization to isolate and build silos within disciplines. By bringing together faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and others who have the expertise, these teams can gather to address big problems, such as health care or economic disparities or criminal justice reform.

Additionally, the new center will set the stage for the creation of an interdisciplinary degree program in applied data science and analytics. An interdisciplinary committee of faculty is developing a draft curriculum for the proposed Master of Science in Data Science degree. AWS will be involved with this process by reviewing courses to ensure relevance and course content for alignment with what is happening in the industry.  Once this program receives approval from the university and accreditors, additional faculty will be hired. Howard officials hope to be able to admit students to this program in Fall 2022.

Maintaining Curriculum Relevance

To ensure that the curriculum stays updated and relevant, Howard plans to include a significant experiential component. Students will work with industry partners through internships and other opportunities. The university will build on the template that has been created through what has come to be known as “Howard West,” a partnership with Google, and Howard Entertainment, which partnerships with Amazon Studios.

In the case of Howard West, students and faculty relocated to the West Coast to work with Google for a 12-week summer program in its first year, and a full semester in the second. Students benefited by having Google engineers and computer sciences serve as co-coordinators for the courses. Students also participated in project teams. Additionally, faculty were able to interact with Google staff and see how theoretical concepts were being applied in the industry. This has helped faculty modernize and ground courses and curriculum in practice.

Because technology changes so rapidly, higher education institutions need to think creatively about how to keep coursework up to date. For example, some institutions use adjuncts who have industry experience to teach higher-level courses, while tenured/full-time faculty teach the foundational courses.

This challenge is not isolated to technology. Howard leaders are seeing similar challenges in health care, medicine, pharmacy, and other disciplines. There is a continual challenge to remain modern in relation to content. Partnerships with AWS and Google are important to helping Howard’s curriculum remain current, while also increasing opportunities for diversity in relation to hiring practices for these companies.

Continuous Curriculum Innovation

Howard West has gone through several iterations. The initiative started as a 12-week summer program for 25 students and several faculty members. It was so successful that Howard expanded the program—which was renamed Tech Exchange–into a semester-long program and then a full-year program. Howard invited other Historically Black Colleges and Universities and several Hispanic-serving institutions to send students. This resulted in students and faculty from 7-8 institutions participating in this effort.

Students benefited from being on Google’s campus and having access to Google staff who served as co-instructors. These individuals provided important feedback on what students need to know and be able to do to be competitive for positions in Silicon Valley.

The latest iteration of Howard West was slated as a semester-long program. However, because of COVID, the effort had to be revised although Howard officials are exploring future opportunities.

As part of Howard West, Google surveyed both students and Google employees about the program. Google employees reported that they benefited from having the students there. For many employees, Howard West was their first opportunity to work with students from HBCUs and the first time to have a diverse group of students on campus. This effort positively impacted their perceptions of these students and reinforced the need for workforce diversity.

Partnerships Focused on Mission

In building these types of partnerships, leaders need to frame the efforts around the college or university mission. For example, Howard’s institutional mission is focused on social justice, which informs every program that the institution offers. The university wants to ensure the mission is part of the student experience so that students will incorporate the mission as part of their lives.

During COVID, Howard leaders faced unique challenges in relation to maintaining their focus on the institutional mission while also being flexible in their response. For example, Howard students were scheduled to be in California to participate in several partnerships when COVID emerged. The pandemic forced the university to change its plans but also to identify a solution that would meet the needs of partners, address the needs of students, and remain aligned with the academic mission of the institution.

Partnership and collaboration focused on the institutional mission will be key for higher education moving forward. Few institutions are going to be able to go it on their own and work independently. Potential partnerships, which can include industry or academic partners need to be framed around the institutional mission; after this step is completed, leaders can identify partners that share a similar mission, which ultimately helps move and facilitate the partnership process.

Women’s Leadership Center

Howard established a new women’s leadership center that is based in the College of Arts and Sciences. As a long-time leader in women’s leadership issues, Howard has numerous outstanding faculty who are committed to furthering leadership among women, including Vice President Harris. The establishment of the formal center, which was supported by a significant contribution by a Howard trustee, will accelerate the institution’s work in this area. In the past, the university has hosted an International Women’s Leadership Conference and a lecture series featuring presentations by top international leaders who are women.

STEM Scholars

Howard also has created the Karsh STEM Scholars program, which started five years ago. This program supports very bright undergraduate students who are willing to commit to pursuing a doctorate in a STEM field. The first cohort of scholars graduated in May 2021 and will be entering graduate school before becoming leaders in STEM fields.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Higher education leaders need to remain flexible. Many decisions are going to be revisited moving forward.
  • HBCU and Hispanic-serving institutions have talented students. Partnerships and collaborations can offer important opportunities for these students and create a pipeline to jobs with future employers. Partnerships can help both universities and organizations—as well as students–learn and grow.
  • Education is changing. COVID accelerated that change. The move to online education due to COVID has resulted in more online programs. Additionally, there will be hybrid programs that will allow students to learn both face-to-face and online. Higher education leaders should expect continual change moving forward.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategy and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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Guest Bio

  • Anthony Wutoh
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