A Silicon Valley startup called the Minerva Project has put traditional colleges and universities on notice. Minerva students live together in rental housing and engage in experiential learning, but they don’t go to lectures or take final exams. “Higher education doesn’t work well anymore,” the system’s founder says. However, an initiative at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business suggests that established institutions can adapt and similarly innovate.
Elite students at Smith called Innovo Scholars are teaming with professors to reshape classroom learning in a program that Red Cross talent acquisition director Adrienne Alberts calls “unique” in that it “uses the interactions between students, faculty, and administrators to cultivate the skills most desired by employers.
Educational psychologist Sandra Loughlin, director of the Office of Transformational Learning at Smith, guides the Innovo Scholars Consulting program through the school’s recently established Office of Transformational Learning.
“Participants must diverge from business-based principals they’re familiar with and account for education-based incentive and disincentive structures,” Loughlin says. “They have to work within those realistic confines.”
Floria Volynskaya, the school’s director of instructional design, says the program is giving business students an opportunity to develop higher education expertise. Students then use that expertise to shape their own educational experience, says Joseph Drasin, director of University Process Innovation for UMD’s Division of Information Technology.
“The program is taking an innovative approach to teach students critical skills which they can apply to improve the delivery of instruction and services,” he says.
The effect circles back to business consulting. “If done right, [the Innovo Scholars' experience] could be a fantastic jump-start for a career and certainly a differentiator for the student-candidate in the eyes of a recruiter,” says Tricia Giacone, director at Gartner, Inc., a D.C.-based information technology research and advisory company.
Each scholar initially studies principles of design thinking, consulting, and classroom instruction. “We spend three-to-four weeks digging into what makes for a really effective college course,” Loughlin says.
The 12 Innovo Scholars in fall 2015 then developed teaching tools for specific courses that professors have agreed to implement. These tools include peer-to-peer and mentor-to-mentee assessments, team-brainstorming sessions, restructured exams, and more.
The scholars also survey stakeholders in their targeted courses, gathering input from employers and former and current students. “Students demand personalized learning, individual feedback, and flexible learning, all while being challenged to think critically,” says Innovo Scholar Praneet Puppala, a finance and computer science major.
Participating professors say the program has helped increase active learning in their classrooms. “More importantly, the Innovo Scholars have helped communicate to students how certain pedagogical components such as requiring students to complete pre-lecture quizzes before going over the class materials truly help students learn better,” Smith accounting professor Progyan Basu says.
Smith finance professor Susan White says the scholars have provided “concrete suggestions” that have been adapted through discussion board topics, blended module lesson plans, and an initiative to build advanced Excel skills in students through regular course assignments.
Martin Loeb, Smith professor and chair of accounting and information assurance, says the program “takes advantage of perhaps the school’s most underutilized resources — the talents of our brightest students.”
Working with an Innovo Scholar also provides a great two-way mentorship opportunity. “The result is greatly improved course design and delivery,” Loeb says, “along with strengthening the allegiance of our best students to the Smith School and the university.”
Management and entrepreneurship professor Brent Goldfarb says he expects the program has “dramatically improved” student learning in his classroom. “First, it provided an opportunity to get a dedicated student who had taken the course to improve it,” he says. “Second, the frameworks this student learned allowed her to critically evaluate elements of the course and offer actionable suggestions to improve it. Third, she actually does the work. The program not only helps identify challenges in a course, but solves them.”
Nick Gholami, who graduated from the Smith School in December, designed and incorporated peer-to-peer and mentor-to-mentee assessments, plus team-brainstorming sessions to a once-a-week class focused on venture capital and new entrepreneurship. “As a finance major, I never imagined becoming a player in the changing landscape of higher education and feeling passionate about it,” he says.
Gholami and his peers are complementing a campuswide movement, says UMD Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dean Chang. “UMD’s unique approach to engaging all students in innovation is to incorporate design thinking or lean startup into courses from every school and department all around campus,” he says. “What better place to apply design thinking than higher ed itself? Who better than students to creatively tackle the classroom as we know it and quickly and iteratively experiment with new ways of teaching and learning?”
Reshaping the Business Model
The Innovo Scholars address a fundamental challenge facing higher education: “How to change its business model to respond to the disruptive forces battering the current business model,” says UMD Vice President and Chief Information Officer Eric Denna. “Specifically, higher education has to focus where to puts its resources.”
He says UMD is fortunate to have gifted students who have grown up with disruption. “If we allow them, they may teach us a thing or two about what needs to change and how,” Denna says. “Otherwise, they will likely gravitate to institutions that are more eager to experiment.”
Rajshree Agarwal, the Smith School’s Rudolph Lamone Chair and Professor in Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, says research on innovation provides important cues. “Users identify unmet needs and are critical partners to an enterprise striving to excel through innovation,” she says.
Likewise, she says, students in higher education not only are critical stakeholders who are able to identify new ways of serving their needs, but also valuable partners who can bring their technological savvy to help us create solutions that enable customized and personalized learning. “Programs such as Innovo Scholars are an innovation in of themselves because they pair dedicated faculty and engaged students to provide novel pedagogies for learning,” Agarwal says.
Innovo Scholar Isaac Adeeku, a marketing major, says schools must increasingly focus on “technologies, teaching methods and social interactions that force students to learn and master skills instead of regurgitating information at the end of a semester.”
The idea of involving stakeholders in the design of products and experiences is decades old, “going back to Scandinavian ideas about worker equity,” says UMD Associate Provost of Learning Initiatives Ben Bederson. “Yet involving students closely in the design of new learning experiences remains frighteningly uncommon,” he says. “So I am delighted to see Dr. Loughlin's engagement of students to create effective, engaging and innovative course structures."
Professor Rebecca Ratner, the Smith School’s assistant dean for academic affairs, says Loughlin is helping to infuse critical thinking into the curriculum. “She is essentially coaching faculty to give students practice imposing structure on complex, otherwise unstructured problems, rather than for faculty to focus simply on conveying information,” Ratner says.
Consulting Industry's Stake
Giacone says she is “glad to see a concept like 'Innovo Scholars coming to life.” Her 10 years in the consulting field have involved recruiting and hiring new talent into the industry. Candidates often lack experience specific to counseling, “and we are forced to interpret resumes to glean whether we can extrapolate skills that may be relevant to consulting,” she says. “Subsequently, assumptions are made on the recruiting side, lower than optimal success rates occur in finding a match between candidate and consultancy, and a very steep learning curve can face the new hire. I am excited and hopeful that a program like Innovo will start to change that.”
Innovo Scholars who weigh a career in consulting will have two key advantages, says Giacone. “First, they'll understand exactly what consulting ‘looks and feels like’ so they can determine if it’s the right career path, instead taking a test run with a consultancy, full-time,” she says. “Second, the candidates will have, and be able to point to, relevant consulting experience that can they can discuss during an interview.”
Alberts, a board member of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, points to the scholars gaining experiences “designed to intentionally test critical thinking, conflict management, influencing and collaboration skills all while energizing their initiative and creativity.”
“The program sets a new standard that I hope becomes the predominant approach in higher education,” she says.
The next challenge, Loughlin says, will be following through. “We must position Smith and UMD among the smart and agile institutions that will respond and even thrive alongside new competitors in this changing environment,” she says.