Lessons from within: redesigning higher education

Annie Hale (Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)
Leanna Archambault (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)
Lukas Wenrick (Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)

Development and Learning in Organizations

ISSN: 1477-7282

Article publication date: 26 February 2020

Issue publication date: 15 April 2020




The purpose of this study is to examine real experiences and challenges from personnel engaged in reforming and transforming the higher education ecosystem at a major university in the desert southwest.


Through a case study approach, we use narrative analysis and a constant comparative method with three researchers who work closely in this space.


Ten categories were identified through a close review of collected data from ten participants through an IRB approved process. Recommendations include clarifying the purpose and using transparent terminology for both implementers and learners as well as figuring out ways to help learners navigate learning pathways. Personnel yearn to be involved early and often to be able to shape major transformations that make use of their efforts and expertise.

Research limitations/implications

Exploring phenomenon in context at one university can highlight nuances that exist at this particular case study site and may not be generalizable.

Practical implications

Sharing real experiences and challenges from those who have begun to implement change in higher education is critical and will bolster those working to push learning forward into the 21st century. To meet the needs of learners at the pre-college, college, and post-college levels, universities need to innovate beyond the traditional modes of education.


It is not often that researchers explore and analyze the struggles and successes of personnel on the ground, working to actualize a major educational shift in higher education. The ten categories denoted in this paper are a pivotal entry point for review that can support others who are engaging or beginning to make changes in their context – pushing one beyond known considerations.



Hale, A., Archambault, L. and Wenrick, L. (2020), "Lessons from within: redesigning higher education", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 34 No. 2, pp. 37-40. https://doi.org/10.1108/DLO-09-2019-0203



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Annie Hale, Leanna Archambault and Lukas Wenrick.


Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at: http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


As higher education continues to evolve from the gatekeepers of knowledge to a space of curators, creators, and connectors – universities are at a unique point in their history and trajectory (Wolfe and Andrews, 2014). Institutions are being called to discover more effective and efficient ways of preparing learners of all types and at all stages. Despite criticism, a general lack of funding, and false starts along the way (e.g., the concept of a massive open online course) – this transition involves a complex set of actors, actions, and artifacts. The question becomes, what lessons can we learn from those involved in transforming higher education to be more than it is currently?

Visionary scholars and leaders are calling for engaged change while leading efforts to reform and transform higher education (Crow and Dabars, 2015). Ramaley (2000) and the Kellogg Commission (2000) aim for higher education to better embrace their civic responsibility and conduct socially inspired research. While a wide variety of ideas and large-scale plans for execution exist, most do not closely unpack how individuals tasked with implementing these goals grapple with and overcome barriers.

What are the challenges associated with educational transformation?

Often unspoken and unacknowledged, attempting to innovate in an environment steeped in tradition can result in numerous challenges. From a purposefully selected review of several major universities in the United States undertaking such change in the last five years (specifically, Arizona State University, University of Maryland, Southern New Hampshire University, Georgia State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Purdue), we have identified several elements that crosscut each universities efforts:

  • a strong university leader who has projected a vision for the 21st-century learner;

  • embracing and investing in digital tools to assist learners; and

  • a large personnel base to design, build, and implement.

Case study

The following ten categories have been identified from a review of the academic literature, our participation in this space over the last ten years as researchers, and in-depth analysis of transcripts from a recent 2019 Pedagogy and Virtual Education (PAVE) meeting (n = 10) at our case study university in the desert southwest. PAVE is a self-generated working group that aims to share successes and struggles. PAVE members include senior developers, directors, researchers, and content experts who focus on non-degree education.

Using both a narrative analysis and constant comparative methodological approach, ten major categories were identified through a close review of the collected data. Two researchers met to explore their independently coded analysis to identify the overarching categories and discuss any discrepancies in coding. The third researcher independently cross-checked the effort.

What lessons can we learn from those involved in transforming higher education?

Listed below are the ten constructed categories with simple clarifying descriptions. We use the term implementer to describe an employee of the university and learner to describe someone who engages with learning at the university. These considerations include:

  • clarify purpose for both implementers and learners;

  • use transparent terminology for both implementers and learners;

  • design coherent learning pathways and create an accessible learning environment;

  • determine standards/quality metrics used by the institution to demonstrate trustworthiness of constructed assets that represent the earned result (e.g., certificate, badge, credential);

  • describe learning futures that include a rich exploration of scale, models of learning, questions about the future of learning, and account for path dependency;

  • ensure that the purpose, direction, and goals are not only clear but also include iterative evaluation;

  • develop incentives/business model(s) to explore mechanisms for implementation, evaluation, revision, and recognition;

  • offer resources and provide support for implementers;

  • identify and research the intended learner population to ensure that specific needs for retention and completion are met; and

  • create and implement learning assets through a careful examination of what is in/out of scope and in light of what already exists.


We center on three key categories: clarifying purpose, using transparent terminology, and identifying relevant standards and measures. Originating from an aspiration to execute high-quality work in the digital education landscape, PAVE meeting participants identified a deep desire for a more cogent vision of transformation from their institution. They wanted to participate in the co-creation of such vision or to be able to directly shape its ultimate formation. A top-down decision-making approach, commonplace in higher education, often obscures what is actually taking place on the ground. One participant mentioned, “[Leadership] is not on the ground, creating this content. So, they are looking at us in our little boxes, watching us run around our little mazes going, oh, they must be doing that.” This is illustrative of many university initiatives that may overlook the importance of clarifying the rationale.

Similar to a desire for a coherent vision is the need for clear terminology. Understanding the definition of particular words, phrases, and acronyms such as Continuing and Professional Education (CPE), Career and Technical Education (CTE), and Professional Education (PD) present a hurdle. Likewise, relating and connecting often ambiguous terms to broad university initiatives can increase confusion. For instance, one member during the meeting mentioned, “Just below the [overarching initiative]. Do [we] separate at that point by academic for-credit and non-academic for-credit? What’s the next level below the initiative?” As various large-scale initiatives evolve, another implication for practice is to take the time to ensure that the main message/goals are clear.

Another consideration is quality standards and metrics. Notably, participants were concerned that quality would be diminished within the non-degree space without quality-control metrics such as formal accreditation oversight. Other members questioned how they could better design content or legitimize various types of content learning assets that could meet the needs of evolving learners within a digitally-transformed world. Institutions must consider their broader roles, including asking how their efforts could or should transcend the concept of offering traditional university courses.

Additional questions that are worthy of consideration are:


How can university leadership develop better systems for the co-creation of institutional transformation or modify midstream existing visions?


Could universities involve personnel earlier on and seek more robust feedback?


In what ways and to what extent should universities help designers navigate emerging trends and terms?

Final thoughts

For universities seeking to innovate beyond the traditional modes of education to meet the needs of learners at the pre-college, college, and post-college levels, sharing the experiences and challenges from those who have begun down this path is critical. Creating new methods and models for a wide array of diverse learners requires breaking out of traditional structures, which can be difficult on a variety of fronts. It is useful to explore universities who are trying new techniques and pushing boundaries. Likewise, it is also important to examine the inevitable growing pains that are part of the journey so they can be addressed and overcome as part of the process of pushing learning forward into the 21st century.


The authors and the Biodesign Pathfinder Center research team under the leadership of Dr. Lee Hartwell at Arizona State University would like to thank the Bezos Family Foundation for the generous support provided to develop, implement, and research the Studio Project. This article was undertaken solely by the listed authors. The Bezos Family Foundation had no role in the study design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. ASU research award number: AWD00033570. Institutional review board study number: STUDY00010173.


Crow, M.M. and Dabars, W.B. (2015), Designing the new American University, JHU Press, Baltimore, MA.

Kellogg Commission. (2000), Renewing the Covenant: Learning, Discovery, and Engagement in a New Age and Different World, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, Washington, DC.

Ramaley, J.A. (2000), “Embracing civic responsibility”, AAHE Bulletin, Vol. 52 No. 7, pp. 9-13, available at: https://aahea.org/articles/march00f2.htm

Wolfe, J. and Andrews, D. (2014), “The changing roles of higher education: curator, evaluator, connector and analystOn the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 210-217, doi: 10.1108/OTH-05-2014-0019.

Corresponding author

Annie Hale can be contacted at: Annie.Hale@asu.edu

About the authors

Annie Hale is based at the Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA. She is a Director of Research and Development for the Biodesign Pathfinder Center at Arizona State University. Her work combines the fields of science and technology studies, sustainability, and design from a human-centered approach. Annie’s research interests focus on the question: How do people construct and understand the world around them, and, in turn, how do those constructs change the way people engage with their world? She directs a variety of educational programs that target sustainability and 21st-century learning that aim to inspire, engage, and empower a variety of publics, from educators to community leaders through elegantly designed content.

Leanna Archambault is based at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA. She is an Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology within the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Her research areas include teacher preparation for K-12 online and blended classrooms, the use of innovative technologies to improve learning outcomes, and sustainability literacy for preservice and inservice teachers.

Lukas Wenrick is based at the Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA. He is based at the Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA. He mission is to create purposeful educational experiences that meet each student where they are academically, experientially, and financially. He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science Education from Wright State University. His experiences at both a broad access public university and an elite private institution inform the work he does each day. Currently, Lukas serves as a University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University where he works to leverage the ASU enterprise to resolve educational and social inequities in the world.

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