A small but growing number of colleges have created offices charged with leading innovation efforts on campus.
At Southern New Hampshire University, officials call it a “sandbox.” More precisely, the university calls it the Sandbox ColLABorative, and its mission is to serve as an internal consulting group on technology and provide a space for professors to experiment.
A few months ago, EdSurge sat down with the leader of this sandbox, Brian Fleming, to talk about where he’s looking for new ideas these days, and about the state of innovation at colleges.
It’s worth noting that his university has done plenty of innovating, as a pioneer in building online programs. Southern New Hampshire has become one of the few mega-universities online, boasting more than 100,000 students.
This conversation took place back in April during the ASU GSV summit in San Diego, as part of an EdSurge Live interview series we did at the event. Listen here, or read highlights below, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Your work is to help your university remain innovative. What is the state of innovation in higher education?
Brian Fleming: I always like to start by saying innovation has occurred in higher education forever. There are segments of the broader higher education landscape that are doing utterly remarkable things.
At Southern New Hampshire University, we often describe innovation quite simply as just a methodology for achieving a new norm—so it’s a very iterative, design-based approach. It’s very important to keep in mind that innovation occurs in several pockets, and in different places throughout the prototypical university and outside.
A lot of the work I do is fueled by a much broader market narrative that’s occurring around higher education in terms of evolution in the tech space—new ways of standing up and delivering programs, and changing learner needs. I think we’re just trying to figure out, “What do we do with the new stuff? Where do we put the new stuff? What do we do with the new stuff once we have it?”
And, more importantly, how do we provide an environment and an atmosphere for new things to come in and actually enact meaningful change for the lives of our learners?
You mentioned that universities have a culture of change. But then again, they don’t always have a good reputation for change.
First of all, you have to keep in mind that there is a reason why colleges and universities are slow to change.
Believe it or not, it’s not just that a bunch of faculty members woke up and decided to ruin the party. It’s that colleges and universities have historically had somewhat of an antithetical role to the broader culture.They’re supposed to think through things. They’re supposed to contemplate whole bodies of research.
A lot of that changed with the introduction of the administrative functions that brought a lot of attention to the business of higher ed in the way in which institutions operate. While every good college out there has a mission and has a reason for being, colleges also have to wheel and deal in a marketplace, and they have to sustain the life of their institution.
You’ve said in the past that higher education should look to other industries for lessons when it comes to innovation. What’s an industry you’re looking at closely these days outside of higher ed?
We’re looking at retail—at e-commerce. What has Amazon done to how we consume things?
As we think about that notion, the term that often comes up is that today, we’re really serving an omnichannel consumer. We are serving someone who, at any given hour, may go from buying something online to watching a video, to listening to a podcast, to—surprise, surprise—going to college and maybe even trying to do that experience online.
So you really have to optimize your product to really be fully interoperable with the experience in the day-to-day life of the consumer. That kind of innovation has happened in the retail space for decades now and continues to evolve, particularly as we think about the shift to digital.
[Audience question] Do you see augmented reality and virtual reality technology making a significant impact to enhance the online higher ed learning experience?
It depends on what kind of institution is asking. What are you trying to do with it? What are you trying to really understand? AR and VR is a technology category. It’s symbolic in a lot of different things.
Is VR worth looking at [for the students we serve]? No. In my opinion, not really. It’s too much technology. It’s a lot of hardware. It’s enormously hard to scale that type of offering. I’ve never fully understood the use case, and maybe it’s just me. I’m sorry for those that developed this technology.
Now, when we look at augmented reality and in some of the off-shoots of that—like ‘extended reality’—we see a lot of promise in that space. [The university] is doing a lot of work and experimentation right now with some of those technologies. I think that there’s a very compelling use case for augmented reality. I’m not sure it’s going to be as technological as we sometimes envision. Augmented reality can mean a lot of things—like using a phone to track things in an environment and create learning experiences that way.