Continuous Curricular Innovation

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Monday, May 17, 2021
By Lisa Abendroth, Susie Eckstein, Patricia Hedberg, Carleen Kerttula, Stefanie Lenway
Photo by iStock/berkozel
To enable swift responses to shifting market needs, the Opus College of Business built innovation into its curricular review process.

Having collectively served in business school leadership roles for decades, we, like many of you, have witnessed significant shifts in the market for graduate management education. We have moved from offering portfolios dominated by the MBA, to specialized master’s programs, to smaller collections of courses that result in a certificate or a badge.

When the new dean, Stefanie Lenway, arrived at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business in 2014, 98 percent of graduate credits came from our various MBA offerings, with about half of the credits generated by a single offering: our part-time MBA program. The challenge we faced was an increase in competitors from both the top of the market—primarily large, highly recognized public and private universities—and a growing secondary market of non-AACSB-accredited graduate business programs.

Because St. Thomas’ reputation for innovation was well known, we, as a leadership team, recognized the potential for innovation to become an ongoing source of competitive advantage for the Opus College. It was in this moment that our journey to reform and revitalize our curricular innovation processes began.

Before 2014, the Opus College faculty followed a standard process of conducting formal program curricular reviews every five years. While informed by students, alumni surveys, and benchmarking research over a multiyear process, this information became peripheral once the internal curricular approval process began.

Recognizing that the college needed to innovate over months, not years, to maintain our market position, we focused on moving from a traditional faculty-centric, multiyear review process to a continuous, routinized, market-centric approach. Using this new approach over the past seven years has yielded the following results:

  • This year, 39 percent of our enrollment is in programs that weren’t even available in 2014.
  • Our graduate credits are now spread across multiple offerings: 71 percent from our four MBA offerings, 20 percent across three specialized master’s degrees, and 9 percent from our eight graduate certificates.
  • We reached a goal, even pre-COVID, of shifting the percentage of graduate courses delivered in fully online or hybrid from 12 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in 2020.

We owe much of this success to the changes we made in our innovation processes. Along the way, we learned valuable lessons and gained new insights that we hope will benefit others.

Building Internal Capacity

Human Resources. Continuous innovation takes time and focus. One key to our success has been investing in human resources dedicated to supporting curricular innovation. Since 2015, the college has supported a director or associate dean of program innovation, held by either a faculty or senior staff member. Reporting to the dean, this individual contributes to strategic planning, manages an array of curricular innovation projects, and collects and shares market intelligence and higher education trends with faculty and staff. Program deans and directors work in tandem with this individual to design new offerings as well as improve existing programs.

Funding. Continuous innovation also requires financial investment. To help maintain a committed pool of resources to invest in innovation, the Opus College established a donor-supported innovation fund with a generous philanthropic partner. The sponsoring foundation partners closely with college leadership to establish a three-to-five-year plan for driving strategic innovation at the college. The funding supports the development of pilot programs as well as experimental initiatives that could eventually be scaled and sustained through new revenue streams. College leadership meets regularly with the foundation to report progress toward established metrics, providing significant accountability for ongoing innovation.

College Culture. We have worked diligently to build a learning culture at the college to encourage transparency and shared responsibility for innovation. Faculty and staff attend coffee chats and meetups to specifically discuss trends in higher education, market intelligence, or the latest teaching and learning innovations. To encourage faculty and staff to gain deeper perspectives of management education, we have also expanded opportunities for them to attend professional development conferences hosted by AACSB, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), or the MBA Roundtable.

We have worked diligently to build a learning culture at the college to encourage transparency and shared responsibility for innovation.

We support faculty partnerships with our business community, bringing current industry knowledge directly to our learners through project-based learning and “Professor + Professional” teaching. Structurally, we have crafted a new interdisciplinary academic unit dedicated to creating learning that approaches business problems from more than one discipline’s perspective, mirroring the skills and knowledge our learners and market tell us they need. Our innovative teaching culture helped us adapt quickly in our response to COVID-19, giving us a platform to share our interactive remote learning techniques and tools with each other.

In addition to building our innovative internal capacity, we have learned to embrace new processes and benefit from more rapid experimentation.

Reinventing Innovation Processes

Focusing on Human-Centered Design. Perhaps the greatest shift in our approach to curricular innovation comes from our commitment to engaging users—both learners and the business community—as design partners. We achieve this by engaging in human-centered design sprints to gain insights into user needs and build learning experiences to meet those needs. For our first few sprints, we leveraged college faculty with human-centered design expertise as well as external consultants to lead teams through the process.

The process involves conducting multiple interviews with users: an initial empathy interview to gain deeper understanding of their experiences and pain points in a certain area (such as managing digital transformation or completing their St. Thomas MBA), and two rounds of feedback sessions to present initial concepts, iterate, and gain insights along the way. Those insights are then used to craft new curriculum or program improvements.

Incorporating traditional secondary research is also part of a comprehensive human-centered design sprint. Like most business schools, we monitor trends in higher education and management education shared by industry organizations like AACSB, OLC, or GMAC. We also follow organizations entering and disrupting the market with shorter, cheaper, and more flexible learning options. We explicitly ask our strategic board of advisors, alumni, and other industry partners to recommend content, delivery methods, and alternative credentials that would best serve their employees and organizations.

Taking Months, Not Years. We have also focused on more rapid innovation. The exact length of any curricular design or redesign process varies depending on the scope and nature of the project; our goal is to have new offerings and program redesigns completed and approved by faculty in less than a year. Design sprints typically last three to four months and result in a series of recommendations that are then honed and socialized internally before going through our formal curricular review processes. As an example, the initial development of our graduate certificates, which consist of 12 to 15 credits, began in January with very focused work, and the certificates were approved by June, marketed over the summer, and launched the following fall. This swift approval process has enabled us to be more responsive to market needs.

Our goal is to have new offerings and program redesigns completed and approved by faculty in less than a year.

Deploying Diverse Teams. To achieve the best results from the human-centered design sprint, we have learned that engaging an interdisciplinary team of fewer than 10 members is most effective. The team might consist of faculty, staff, students, and industry leaders or university partners, supported by a project manager. In our case, the project manager would be the director of innovation or associate dean of innovation. This team, after conducting the sprint, provides recommendations for initial concepts. We then engage faculty and internal stakeholders in the design process to build energy and excitement around ideas and to listen to and incorporate their feedback. This step is critical, as faculty bring fresh perspectives and remain key stakeholders in approving curricular changes. We then deliver final proposals to college and university curriculum committees for approval.

Evaluating Success. The process of working directly with users to design solutions has also resulted in both “go” and “no go” decisions. At times, we discovered that we could neither effectively nor practically deliver a solution that would meet our users’ needs. The reason was typically that we did not have the internal capacity or faculty expertise to design and deliver the type of learning experience that was really needed. Or the timing wasn’t right as we sought to prioritize other educational innovations. We have learned to define these discoveries as successes.

The “go” decisions were all impactful. We have launched more contemporary offerings, like an Omnichannel Strategy Graduate Certificate; more student-centric features, like a more flexible core curriculum; and greater delivery innovation, like our Professor + Professional teaching model.

Continuing the Work

We have learned many beneficial lessons since 2014. One is the importance of building an internal college structure that supports and shapes innovation. Equally important is establishing a routine innovation process that centers on our users as co-designers.

Our work is not done. Business schools will continue to be impacted by the formidable societal and technical challenges facing our students, the business community, and larger society. To create the contemporary education that is needed, we will continue to deepen our internal innovative mindset and skill set as well as broaden our external collaboration. Our goal is to exemplify a learning organization, one that creates meaningful educational opportunities for others as we simultaneously learn and adapt to support changing business practice.

Lisa Abendroth
Associate Professor, Associate Dean of Graduate Program Innovation, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
Susie Eckstein
Director of Strategic Initiatives, Opus College of BusinessUniversity of St. Thomas
Patricia Hedberg
Associate Professor of Management, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
Carleen Kerttula
Executive Director, Business in a Digital World, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
Stefanie Lenway
Dean, Opus Distinguished Chair, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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