Productive Disruption: 5 approaches for implementing innovative learning practices

Productive Disruption


To kick-off UPCEA’s 2021 Regions conference, five leaders in higher education shared strategies to implement innovative learning practices that can increase equity in higher education.

Higher education institutions were not built to serve the US population as it looks today. Yet it continues to be one of the only proven keys to economic mobility. If our society is to make true strides towards equity, we need to build an education system that strives to include and support students from all backgrounds, of all ages, and with varied lives and experiences. Schools that are mission-driven and believe in the power of education to create a better future for individuals, families, and society can begin to integrate innovative learning practices including:

  • Stackability: learning has no start or end date, it is lifelong and all types of learning can and should stack to a degree.
  • Credit for X: acknowledging that skill and knowledge can be gained in a variety of ways inside and outside of the classroom – and all high quality learning should count.

Like all real game-changers, implementing these practices can feel disruptive. Below are a few tactics that can help drive a successful process: 

1. Know your why and be able to communicate it.

Many of us are in higher ed because we believe in the power of education. Education is intended to be the great equalizer. It informs our perspective, expands our depth of thought and serves as a gateway to well paying jobs. However, a large majority of our population is denied access to these life changing benefits since the system in which we currently operate is one that prides itself on exclusivity. Mission-driven educators know that this will only continue to widen the rift between those with the luxuries of wealth and time – and those who have been overlooked for generations due to systemic biases and a blind acceptance of the status quo.

If your school wants to be a leader in innovation, equity, equality and inclusion, you will be able to find your why.

Creating eSpelman was a mission-aligned evolution for the institution. Spelman College was originally built to create opportunities for African American women to access higher education, achieve economic mobility and help shrink the wealth gap. Educating those who were previously denied access is part of their DNA – and practices like creating stackable pathways for students and delivering courses online both motivates working adults to enroll and is designed to fit into their life. This innovation thereby allows them to educate more individuals, equally. “We want to be the catalyst for opportunities,” Tiffany Watson, Vice President for eSpelman said, “and part of that is doing things in a way that is completely different.”


2. Understand the lives and experiences of the students you will be serving.

To effectively educate the new traditional student, we must first understand who they are, what their lives look like and the obstacles they face enrolling and retaining in higher education.  

    • Over ⅓ of students attending college are over the age of 25 – and many are returning to school after a long gap.
    • 64% of students continue to work while they are in school.
    • 35% of all undergrads are first gen, and of them, 34% are over the age of 30.
    • 16% of Americans age 16-65 lack basic digital literacy, including 5% who have no computer experience.

One strategy to ensure you are doing this right is to “bring your most vulnerable students to the table,” said Lisa McIntyre-Hite, Vice President of Learning Innovation at Guild Education. If you listen to your students talk about their lives, the barriers they face, and the parts of your institution that have been challenges to navigate, you can be truly student-centric in your design.

Eloy Oakley, Senior Advisor to the US Secretary of Education added, “We need to check our biases at the door.” When you listen to the learners and design with their experience in mind, you will be better able to rethink what you assumed was working and start anew.


3. Engage key stakeholders, including faculty early and move with promoters.

Disruptive initiatives will touch every part of an institution. Assemble your team early and bring them on the journey. “Hire and train people who share your vision,” said Saskia Knight, Executive Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and Student Affairs at UMass Global, “decisions must be made with the best interest of the students in mind, not the ease of your administration.”

Your team will also have insights on how to develop processes that are realistic and implementable. Especially faculty. “They are your Chief Developers,” Watson said. They also will be the ones delivering  new innovations in teaching and learning for your students, so it is important to include them in the design and development process. Faculty are experts in their field, but cannot also be expected to be experts in the research and practices in effective online learning design. Leverage the expertise of instructional designers who are trained in assessment design and online learning strategies when faculty are not experts in this space.


4. Find connection points between program learning outcomes and relevant job-trainings or short-form credential programs so you can give credit for prior learning.

Learning can happen anywhere. If we can measure and recognize that learning, we should be able to give students credit for it and help them take the first steps towards a degree. When competencies within programs are discreetly and clearly articulated, you can map competencies gained from prior learning back to the curriculum and allot credit for it. 

Acknowledging prior learning motivates working adult learners to enroll, choose specific programs, and persist at higher rates. At one Guild employer, 1 in 5 students said they would not be in school today without the opportunity to transfer on-the-job training credits. Nationally, we have seen credit for prior learning help all students succeed, and have an incredibly positive effect for underrepresented populations. A study from CAEL and WICHE showed:

    • 24% increased completion rates for Hispanic students with prior learning assessment
    • 14% increase for Black students
    • 19% Pell Grant recipients
    • 25% Adults at community colleges

UMass Global does “a deep analysis of employer programs, using a rigorous rubric, to review them for credit,” Knight said. They will even help companies enhance their programs to meet standards in areas such as assessment or rigor so students can get additional credits. 

5. Build stackable pathways.

Life is complicated. It rarely follows a direct path — so why should learning do the same? Learning can take different forms, and as long as it is high quality, we should create pathways that enable students to stack their prior learning into a degree, as we know that is still the gateway to economic mobility. 

“Stacking credentials supports the journey of upward mobility,” Amber Garrison-Duncan, Executive Vice President, Competency-Based Education Network said. If programs are designed modularly, students can complete them in a way that fits into their life. “Each module is like a bucket of learning,” Garrison-Duncan said, “it should add a measurable competency that can lead to a promotion or pay increase – a tangible outcome that helps the student’s upward mobility along their journey.”

Currently, 2 in 5 working-age adults have completed a non-degree credential; 1 in 5 report it as their highest level of education. If we show these students that their prior learning counts, and will contribute to a degree, we can reduce the cost and time it takes to complete a degree – and expand access for millions of working adults.

Moreover, building on- and off-ramps for students begins to chip away at the biases that are baked into traditional systems. In a recent Guild study, we found that “something unexpected came up” is the primary reason Black (48%) and Hispanic or Latinx (35%) students stopped out. People of color in our country are still more likely to be poor, have shredded time, and work on the frontlines. If we can understand that, and show them we are here to help and not to penalize, we can make a difference. 

As student populations continue to evolve, we need to be more diligent about designing a system that works for them. “Those who receive the benefit of education need to achieve outcomes we say they are getting and achieve economic mobility,” Oakley said. These innovative learning practices are one step towards engaging students for whom higher education previously felt unattainable, and weaving learning into their life in a manner that helps them realize true outcomes in the short and long term.