A Primer on Academic Strategies

What is Academic Strategy?

There are a number of perspectives from which this question can be approached. We will focus on only one in this brief.

The purposeful development of academic initiative(s) designed to secure an institution’s, school’s, college’s, or program’s strategic position in the competitive global digital learning marketplace.

Why are academic strategies important?

Academic strategy is essential in developing quality, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability in colleges and universities.

Academic Strategy Illustrated

Figure 1: Academic Strategy Illustrated

Another major reason in today’s world is the massive paradigm shift to a Global Digital Learning Ecosystem. The new learning ecosystem is ubiquitous (everywhere), content rich (has everything), and is available to the learner at precisely the time when they need or want it (convenient). The new ecosystem provides unprecedented learning access to digital native populations (by definition under 35 years of age, but significantly broader than that). Digital communications provides unprecedented access to information, thought leaders, knowledge providers, learning communities, curricula, creative tools and tutorials. The new learning ecosystem changes all of the academic rules of engagement.

What are the implications of the paradigm shift and its impacts on colleges and universities?

Because the new paradigm and the new global digital learning ecosystem changes all of the academic rules of engagement, planning must focus first and foremost upon the master academic plan for the future. This means the MASTER ACADEMIC PLAN assumes primacy in the institutional planning hierarchy. Serving as a Master Plan it guides the other plans and nurtures the institution’s energies toward the new paradigm.

Are academic cultures too parochial and focused upon self-interest to make the transition?

Certainly some are, but by no means all. There are a host of academic visionaries that lead the transition into the future. Further, we must remember that not all resistance is due to parochial self-interest. A great deal of consternation occurs over concern for the best interest of the learner and what is believed to be the holy grail of quality undergraduate education—small class size. Legitimate concern sets off a myriad of myopic arguments fed by beliefs of what is coming rather than deep reflection about what should a college or university look like in the new global digital learning ecosystem. MIT faculty have taken a very deep look at that very question. Certainly the founders of EdX, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, their 38 charter members, 27 members and 7 national and regional consortia adopting the EdX platform. The founding of Western Governors University is testament to the transformation. Georgia Tech’s new OMSCS in partnership with Udacity and ATT is a great example that academic cultures, programs and institutions can move judiciously toward optimizing the emerging global digital learning ecosystem.

How can an institution proceed using small steps that build toward a larger transformation?

The development of academic strategies is a complex undertaking. The first assumption centers on the principle that “Curriculum drives enrollment, enrollment drives revenue, revenues drive everything else!” This principle of sustainability translates into two primary focal points for academic strategy, the curriculum, and the learner. The economic challenges of sustainability are not counter to academic quality they must be synergistic with academic excellence. Focusing upon learners first provides a clearer perspective of the individuals who seek, find and enroll in programs of study. The learner-centric approach must simultaneously focus on the tenets of academic quality and effective learning. To foster this focus, we have developed the Learner Centered Curriculum Framework around seven strategic questions guiding academic planning.

The questions for higher education are a matter of Academic Strategy and are learner-centric in nature. Seven framing questions focus attention on the learner and learning:

  1. Who are the learners?
  2. What objectives do the learners seek?
  3. What learning provider models are available to the learners?
  4. What learning theories and methods are appropriate for specific learners and the objectives they seek?
  5. What is the optimum curriculum architecture for an institution or educational entity?
  6. What specific curriculum can be configured to meet the learning needs of the learner population(s) an institution has chosen or been charged to serve?
  7. What support services are necessary to enable specific learner population(s) to successfully complete the curriculum and meet their objectives?
The Learner-Centered Curriculum Framework

Figure 2: The Learner-Centered Curriculum Framework – The Learner-Centered Curriculum Framework developed by Michael G. Dolence as an integrating concept linking Enrollment Management, Strategic Planning, and Curriculum Design, Development and Delivery

Answers to the seven questions orient the planning and analysis discussion on an integrated array of factors that must be considered as institutions ponder pathways to sustainability. Each of the seven questions must inform and be informed by the institution’s overarching strategy for sustainability, strategic position in the academic marketplace, and performance in terms of utilization of resources and educational outcomes. Answers to each question help inform and build the master academic plan. The master academic plan informs and sets the strategic framework for recruitment, retention and operational portfolios and performance. Policy enables and assures effectiveness, efficiency and overall quality of the enterprise. Analytics informs all aspects of strategic and operational functions.

The Strategic Enrollment Management Matrix

Figure 3: The Strategic Enrollment Management Matrix

The intersections in the matrix establish deep queries and framed analysis of the relationship of the institution and its master academic plan to the global learning marketplace. One fundamental element of that analysis is the strategic analysis and evaluation of the institution’s curriculum architecture.  The task of assessing the existing curriculum architecture against the seven dimensions of strategic enrollment management has resulted in the formulation of a proficiency based curriculum architecture model.

Proficiency Based Curriculum Architecture Model

Figure 4: Proficiency Based Curriculum Architecture Model

The new model is built from the IMS chassis of Reusable Learning Objects and Modules existing courses and programs, and the recognition that communities of practice are beginning to drive new program planning and expanded views of the value of state-of-the-art curriculum. The proficiency based curriculum architecture model provides for the design, development and implementation of more granular curriculum, that can be assembled and reassembled into programs that address credit bearing curricular applications as well as practice based applied learning requirements. The model expands the usefulness and application of curriculum to a much broader educational marketplace. The new expanded view of curriculum provided by the proficiency based curriculum architecture model opens new options for higher education.

Introduction to Academic Strategic Variables

The development of academic strategies involves manipulation of variables within an educational entity (e.g. institution, college, school, program, or department) in order to gain strategic position in the global learning marketplace. The development of academic strategies is both art and science and is enhanced by the depth and breadth of knowledge of the options available to an academic strategist. Academic strategy development requires both systems thinking and contemporary knowledge of cognitive research and learning strategy. The following, while not exhaustive provides a foundation for understanding the roots of academic strategy development.

  • Curriculum Architecture Strategies (using variables strategically to align curriculum with market segments)
    • Term Variables: adjust enrollment periods to align with market segments requirements or shorten time to course completion. Examples include 4 week term, 8 week term, 15/16 week term or open term.
    • Schedule Variables: adjusts synchronous learning engagements to align with market segments requirements. Examples include traditional day schedules, weekend colleges, and evening schedules.
    • Granularity Variable (see proficiency based curriculum architecture model, above,  with 7 Tiers rather than 2): adjusts curriculum content, courses, and engagements into smaller components permitting deeper assessment, application across multiple programs of study, and access for necessary developmental coursework.
  • Content Strategies
    • Curriculum Scope: defines the breadth and depth of academic programs in an institution’s portfolio.
    • Community of Practice Focus: identifies trans-disciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs of study designed to address emerging needs of society and concomitant interests of learners.
    • Discipline Focus: provides a clear definition of specific elements of content for promotion and consideration by learners, employers, faculty, and philanthropy.
  • Assessment Strategies
    • Integrated Assessment: allows the assessment of learning and curriculum, including the collection of data associated with it, to occur routinely within the curricular engagement process.
    • Digital Assessment Support Systems include a wide range of digital formative assessment tools as well as systems for learning outcomes management (i.e. Canvas, Angel Learning).
  •  Learning Environment
    • Campus Master Plan: provides a rational design view of a campus and the strategies to create an effective, efficient learning environment supporting the academic community.
    • Academic Facilities Portfolio enhances specific academic facilities to highlight their design features that promote effective learning and scholarship.
    • Learning Management Systems (LMS): is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of digital courses. The use of LMS as a strategic element provides unprecedented information and control over digital curricula and learner assessment and engagement.
    • Digital Learning Environment (serving synchronous and asynchronous learning engagements) recognizes the ubiquitous critical mass of digitized information and resources, creative tools and communications options open to learners, scholars and academic leaders.
  • Strategic Positioning Strategies
    • Packaging (See Georgia Tech, Western Governor’s links above) push the boundaries of existing portfolios by combining the pieces in creative and effective ways.
    • Transformational efforts redefine the rules of engagement to optimize position and performance in a new paradigm.
    • Preeminence defines efforts to achieve the acknowledged status of best of breed.

In closing

The need for forward thinking academic strategies is demonstrated daily across higher education. Institutions considering changes to their core curricula, departments developing new programs, schools and colleges developing strategic plans or Master Academic Plans, institutions developing academic enrollment management initiatives, institutions approaching accreditation review, re-accreditation processes or responding to findings from a review are just a few of the prompts for deep thoughtful reflection on academic strategy.

Note: This brief Primer is designed to illustrate the elements of academic strategy and how they relate to each other. It is neither complete nor exhaustive.

There is one comment

  1. Tricia Penniecook

    As a newly appointed Academic Vice-President for an institution of higher education, I enrolled in the Academic Strategies and Master Academic Planning Institute hoping to obtain the necessary elements to begin my new role with a clear understanding of my role. Given the current trends in education and in society in general, the Institute delivered clear guidance and exposure to excellent resources for my toolbox. However, what was most valuable for me was the outstanding balance between strategic vision and nuts-and-bolts advise that Dr. Dolence provided. It was an opportunity to obtain information and inspiration. I would certainly recommend this Institute to anyone facing the challenge of leading a higher education institution in today’s learner-centered and dynamic environment.
    Tricia Penniecook, MD, MPH

    Like

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