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The Need for an Agile Mindset in Higher Education

By: Matt Walton


As higher education institutions grapple with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, adopting an Agile mindset can help students, faculty, and administrators thrive amidst uncertainty.

As the new academic year approaches, many colleges and universities are preparing to make an unprecedented switch to remote learning. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, online instruction represented only a small percentage of total university instruction. Now, whether they are cautiously reopening their campuses or planning to operate exclusively online, institutions across the country are scaling up their digital infrastructure to ensure that instruction can take place remotely if needed.

But challenges posed by the pandemic go deeper than the adoption of new technologies. To better adapt to continuous and rapid change, higher education institutions would benefit from broad adoption of an Agile mindseta fundamental change in the way faculty and administrators think about classroom instruction and how colleges and universities can provide education to their students in changing times.

What Is an Agile Mindset?

Initially conceived as a set of principles aimed at improving software development, Agile emphasizes interactions between individuals and responding to change over fixed processes and plans. As Agile principles spread to other industries, many practitioners started emphasizing the mindset behind Agile — one focused on self-organizing teams, collaborating in a network, and delivering value in short sprintsinstead of marathons — as much as the methodology itself.

Of course, university operations are not identical to software development, but it is becoming increasingly evident that higher education stands to benefit from shifting to an Agile mindset. Indeed, the silver lining of the rapid and unexpected switch to digital learning prompted by the COVID-19 crisis may be the opportunity for colleges and universities to pilot new approaches to instruction and learning that are designed to roll with change.

Digital Learning as a Case Study in Adaptability

To ensure instruction can resume in the fall in some form, many institutions are migrating to a hybrid or completely online model. Most are investing in digital learning by bolstering their hardware infrastructure, investing in software, and training their staff and faculty in new tools and technologies.

For schools that have been slow to respond to recent technological innovations, the switch to digital learning will also be an opportunity to experiment with shifting to an Agile mindset. This may play out in a number of ways:

Sprints: encourage faculty to emphasize incremental, iterative learning.

Typical semester-long, large-scale projects can be broken down into smaller components, or “learning sprints.” This encourages students to focus on the best way to break down problems into manageable chunks, react and adapt to issues or changing ideas in real time, and receive value quickly. Fortunately, digital tools support this approach by enabling instructors to provide early and frequent feedback to students. Without face-to-face meetings with students, regular feedback becomes doubly important and can be an important motivational tool.

Communication: focus on human collaboration rather than process.

A key component of the student experience is working with peers and building relationships. Faculty should be leveraging online learning platforms and social media to encourage student interaction. This will help students stay engaged and cultivate networks of peer support while learning remotely. Online platforms also give faculty the opportunity to easily share best practices with each other. This will not only improve morale but help build a collaborative faculty culture.

“Customer” Collaboration: create space for feedback and continuously adapt.

In addition to introducing technologies like Zoom and Google Classroom, distance learning will require dynamic experimentation and adjustment. Students and faculty alike will need to question, examine, and alter their approaches depending on how various tools and methods are working for them. Faculty that build student feedback loops and continuous improvements into their courses will likely adjust better to an online environment and see more positive responses from their students.

The Broader Benefits of Adopting an Agile Mindset

Beyond implementing new technologies, Agile is about innovation in the face of uncertainty. As students and their families reassess the value of a university education, higher education institutions can help assuage students’ concerns by proactively evolving the higher education experience.

Even once the COVID-19 pandemic begins to abate, colleges and universities will continue to face unprecedented challenges in the coming years. Tackling them will require close collaboration between all stakeholders — administrators, faculty, and students. Ultimately, experimenting with Agile now will position higher education institutions for future success by building a strong and versatile foundation.

Matt Walton


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