Driving Innovation in Colleges and Universities:

with Julie Lenzer | Changing Higher Ed 044

Table of Contents

Driving Innovation in Colleges and Universities with Julie Lenzer | Changing Higher Ed 044

Driving Innovation in Colleges and Universities podcast with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Julie Lenzer | Changing Higher Ed podcast episode 044 gives insights for ways in which higher education will need to increasingly focus on innovation in both how it operates and how it educates students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant recession. So what does that look like? This podcast focuses on taking innovation to the next level.

Julie Lenzer serves as the University of Maryland’s chief innovation officer. As an entrepreneur, she worked extensively in the private sector, including owning Applied Creative Technologies, which handled data analytics and collection for food manufacturing companies. Lenzer also worked in the Obama Administration as the Director of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which was housed within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

She has been in academia for 3 years where her focus is on creative problem-solving and making things happen. Lenzer fosters and supports UMD’s innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology commercialization enterprise, including the development of the UMD’s Research Park, the Discovery District, and the Greater College Park initiative. She also promotes and facilitates university-wide collaboration to launch startup ventures based upon University intellectual property.

Sparking Innovation in Colleges and Universities

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing innovation in colleges and universities at an extremely fast pace. Everything that institutions (especially those that are not purely online) thrive on—a sense of community, students on campus, research labs—is being rethought during the pandemic.

Higher education also has been forced to embrace changes on numerous fronts during this pandemic, including managing team members who are working remotely. Lenzer believes this approach to work will continue, which will be good for employees and the university because of greater organizational and personal efficiencies. Additionally, this remote-working approach is good for the environment.

The pandemic also is offering higher education the opportunity to infuse students with the mindset of “How can we….?” Through that problem-solving, entrepreneurial mindset, creativity is being enhanced.

Going forward, institutions will need to encourage broader connections in order to spark innovation. Many institutions tend to be siloed, although progressive institutions have started to figure out that they need to use a systems perspective and have greater connections across campus. To achieve this level of connection, we recommend finding ways to connect individuals across disciplines and functions since innovation comes from differences in thought and perspectives.

This approach to creating innovation also should be adopted to connect students who have different majors and interests. For example, the University of Maryland just created an immersive Design Media major, which is a collaboration between the art and the computer science departments.  The creative mindset and liberal arts education are not going away; in fact, this approach is becoming more important in the STEM-focused world because it is proving to be the differentiator.

In another example of this type of cross-pollination, the University of Maryland offers a program called Quest that brings business students and technical students together to work in diverse teams focused on problems faced in industry. This type of program exposes students to real-world issues and requires them to be innovative by applying the knowledge they gained in class to create a solution.

At many institutions across the nation, faculty members and students offer their knowledge and skills in the fight against the coronavirus. For example, one University of Maryland incubator, TechPort, brought in engineers from a nearby U.S. Navy base. These engineers used 3-D printers to create facemasks, developed frames for facemasks, and created a large device to sterilize PPEs. One person took a breast pump and redirected it to be a ventilator.

Fostering Creativity

Fostering creativity is based on allowing and even encouraging failure, which is often difficult in higher education which focuses on pass/fail grades. One of the key concepts in this requires embracing the concept of measured failure, i.e., when someone tries something and then is positively acknowledged for the effort and thought process that was underlying the measured failure.

However, this approach can be a conundrum between the current version of higher education and the need for developing and encouraging creative problem-solving people. A good example of this was Thomas Edison, who failed numerous times before he created the light bulb.

Institutions shouldn’t look down on people because they failed. In fact, the University of Maryland actually celebrates spectacular failures and now holds a conference where people talk about where they’ve failed, but more importantly what they’ve learned from it and how they changed what they were doing and improved on what they are attempting. That is the tool that is going to help students the most in their future careers because everyone will be focused on challenges and improvements.

The next level of academics

The cross-disciplinary approach is critical to prepare students for the world they will enter. Students increasingly can create their own majors and craft their own paths based on their interests and skills. While this is not a new concept, many institutions do not do this. It’s also an institutional mind shift away from “I know what’s best for you” to instead embracing a more personalized education.

Higher education needs to find ways to expose students to new ideas and unlock something—a skill or interest– in them that they didn’t realize they had. The institution should support these students in this inquiry but not hand them everything as they go forward. It’s also important to connect students with individuals with similar viewpoints and interests as well as with others who think differently.

Students’ own exploration through their classwork as well as their interactions with a variety of classmates, will offer more important insights and learnings that ultimately will be more useful to them. This model also means that higher education institutions aren’t driving the student’s academic progress as much as they have in the past; instead, the institution’s role is more about unlocking, supporting, connecting, and encouraging potential.

Online education also creates innovation by allowing students to make higher education their own. For instance, students who are not morning people don’t have to take 8 a.m. classes, which provides real efficiencies. Institutions need to consider the blend of synchronous and asynchronous delivery in relation to how the faculty develops curriculum, delivers knowledge, and provides students with opportunities to apply what they have learned. Students need to learn how to think, find meaningful resources, problem-solve, break down barriers and go around obstacles. The focus needs to be on creating adaptable, resilient, persistent, resourceful citizens. And higher education needs to see themselves as part of the talent-supply pipeline.

Higher education faculty and leaders also are determining is that some of the instructional methods and techniques that work in the classroom don’t translate to online education. This means that faculty members are having to learn to teach in different ways that go beyond their standard Powerpoint and lectures.

As higher education moves forward toward totally online or hybrid models, faculty will need to explore other ways to more effectively engage students. Lenzer believes this will be critical because the “new normal” will require colleges and universities to make better use of technology going forward.

Additionally, institutions need to consider an individualized approach to learning. While this can be very difficult when a class has 100 or more students, this approach can still offer significant benefits to students. Furthermore, adopting this student-centered approach to learning can differentiate the institution in potential students’ minds, serving as a major enticement to enrolling.

This approach may be an easier transition for younger faculty, who have a different perspective. While the traditional “tenure” approach offers faculty the chance to explore new worlds in research, there needs to be accountability in relation to students and what they want from their college experience.

Change Agent

Lenzer was brought in to the University of Maryland as an outlier on purpose because flexibility is becoming increasingly important because the world is changing so rapidly. Higher education needs to keep up, because some studies show that what students learn in their freshmen year could be obsolete by their senior year.

Lenzer believes her role is to continually ask, “Help me understand why we do it this way.” She finds that most of the time, people don’t know. While people need to be cautious about crossing a legal line and a moral/ethical line, they also tend to be worried about the policy and accreditation lines. However, these last two lines can be changed. With that said, it’s critical to speed up the system to make these changes to reflect the continuous change in a rapidly evolving society.

Institutions should also find quick leading indicators for success. Data is a really powerful resource that institutions need to leverage, especially in relation to students and their successes. Tracking data from alumni also can provide important information to inform higher education programs.

Innovation becomes more important in a crisis. During these times, institutions are forced to be less risk-averse as far as trying new things. Faculty and researchers like to wait to have all the data and be right; however, in these times you can’t be right. You need to focus on being close.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Lenzer suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Engage students to help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset that encourages them to take ownership of their own destiny.
  • The siloed approach in higher education isn’t helpful. Higher education needs to break down those siloes – whether created by schools/colleges, discipline, or function – to more effectively drive institutional goals and innovation. True innovation comes from the diversity of thought and discipline. Therefore, try to bring individuals together who have different backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences, and disciplines. This will drive innovation among faculty and students, and also will help attract a new generation of talented faculty and students as well.
  • The traditional university culture of “let’s build a building” no longer works in the age of coronavirus. It also doesn’t work for economic development if that’s part of the institution’s mission. Instead, focus on what is happening inside the building – the people, programs, community, and culture.

Bullet Points

  • The coronavirus pandemic is causing extreme change for higher education institutions. The parts of university life – a sense of community, students, research labs—have been negated for the moment due to the pandemic. This also is offering a sense of innovation to emerge.
  • Broader connections among faculty and students that span the breadth and depth of the higher education institution can lead to a high level of innovation that can take the institution to the next level.
  • Creativity is fostered through creating a culture that allows for failure. People need to be celebrated for trying and talking about the lessons they have learned to refine their projects. Institutions can also highlight these efforts through conferences and other outlets.
  • To foster this level of innovation and creativity, students should be encouraged to build their own majors by combining their own interests and skills. Faculty members should move into a role that encourages, opens doors, and unlocks a student’s potential.
  • Online education offers an opportunity to individualize instruction for students. This will be challenging for faculty members who are set in their ways.
  • Higher education leaders need to continually ask, “Why is this done this way?” in order to spark innovation. Many people will reply that it’s due to legal or moral/ethical groups. However, others will say it’s a policy or accreditation issue, without noting that these can be changed. It’s important for higher education to speed up in making these types of changes in order to stay relevant in these rapidly changing times.
  • Higher education also needs to be better about tracking data. This can include student data as well as alumni data.

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