Innovation in the Business of HigherEd


business-561387_640Innovation in higher ed? Are you kidding? The business of higher education is so not innovative. To suggest that higher education is innovative is like suggesting that ham sandwiches can fly.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Take me to task: what is my definition of innovation?To be clear, when I’m talking about innovation in higher education, I’m talking about “a new idea, method, or device.” Or, to offer a synonym: “novelty.”

Sure, in higher education we teach classes on entrepreneurship and innovation. Some of our institutions may even have a program or two that we consider to be novel in the way they sequence the learning or in their formative methods such as hands-on apprenticeships, internships, student-led research, and so on. But we must not fool ourselves: such innovation is not applied to the business of higher education.

Sadly, if we don’t change how we do business, many of our institutions won’t be here in another five years. I’m not talking about Clay Christensen’s disruptive innovation, in which “disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players.”1 If I were talking about that (and I’m not), I would be talking about how our established institutions would be put out of business by others offering cheap and inferior product. Instead, I want to focus on those of us in higher education and on what we do to continuously improve—to repeatedly make new—the product we offer to our customers: our students. I believe the colleges and universities that are no longer here in five to ten years will be gone not because they failed to compete with cheap and inferior offerings but, rather, because they failed to distinguish themselves in a saturated marketplace. They failed to renew their product offerings. They failed to deliver to hopeful graduates the career-readiness those students expected, using methods those students could best absorb, respond to, and learn from—learn from!

Getting back to higher education’s failure to innovate. . . . What about online learning? Wasn’t that an innovation? Not really. For one thing, it didn’t originate with higher education: we borrowed it from the corporate world. We can’t claim it as our own business model. Nor did it fundamentally change the way we do business. Call it a bolt-on to the “same ole, same ole.” Higher education is exceptionally slow to adopt new methods, devices, and practices. In general, something new has to be proven in the corporate world and at one or two colleges/universities that we consider peers before a case can be made to try it out at our own institution. That’s because the case will involve assessing risk to the institution, and we can’t do that until we have the data borrowed from those first adopters.

I’m involved in educational technology—in facilitating and building awareness, among my faculty, of technology that enables new methods of teaching and learning. Yet sadly, even the innovations in that slice of the business cannot be said to originate within higher education, with the one exception of student-led startups. If the students themselves can gain traction with an idea, then the risk footprint to the institution is already small in terms of cost, damage to reputation, and failure to launch, since those are all borne by the student principals of the startup.

Within our institutions, even our research institutions, we have no incentive, and certainly no straightforward process, for entrepreneurial research that can become the new de facto “business” of higher education.

Every generalization has its exceptions, of course. In this case, one exists at Georgetown University. Under Vice Provost Randy Bass, the Designing the Future(s) initiative is an incubator seeking to answer the question, “What should a Georgetown education look like in the next ten or fifteen years?” This effort fits my definition of innovation because it is a novelty: it begins with the current business fundamentals and deconstructs them all to see if they are still serving teaching and learning. No rule is sacrosanct, be it the 16-week semester or the credit hour or the 9-month calendar. The innovation that Georgetown hopes to foster is being created by higher education, to be applied to higher education business. And that is true innovation by any definition of the word.

Are there other examples of ham sandwiches that can fly? I came across a promising one when I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in January 2018. I was introduced through Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College, who led a session. At Davidson, Kristen leads efforts to define and pilot discrete manageable experiments in change. The experiments are mission-aligned, have accountability and metrics built in, and are designed to manage risk while finding the change points that Davidson’s traditional liberal arts mission can use. It’s a different approach from Georgetown’s but does create the requisite siloed “R&D” department that can lead to transforming the way Davidson does the business of higher education. In addition, Eshleman is involved in the 2018 version of an event called the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm. Georgetown will be represented at the gathering as well. This small but powerful event is held annually by invitation only. And that’s probably because such a small number of us have begun to think the way they are thinking.

Would you be one of them if you could? Do their stated goals below scare you? Or invigorate you? Do you have other ideas for effective innovation in the business of higher education?

Share learnings from across our community on successes—and more importantly, failures—within experimentation efforts for the purpose of institutional transformation.

Establish communities of practice around the most pressing opportunities and challenges facing innovation leaders within higher education (e.g., new business models; culture change; moving from pilot to scale; innovation accounting; etc.).

Address external disruption by building the case for advancing institution-led innovation, both within our individual institutions and across the sector.


  1. Disruption as defined in the New York Times “Innovation” report, March 24, 2014, p. 16. 

Laura Gekeler is LMS Administrator at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2018 Laura Gekeler. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Originally published in EDUCAUSE Review 53, no. 2 (March/April 2018)

Educause Review March/April 2018.


Notre Dame wants to get to know a Sakai developer – is that you?

Shameless plug for a Learning Management Developer (One Year Limited Term) …

Sunrise over St. Mary's lake, late summer...Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Sunrise over St. Mary’s lake, late summer…Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

You should come work for the Office of Information Technologies. And here’s why –

The University of Notre Dame ranks 9th among “Best Places to Work in IT” for the third year running. 

We were cool before that, but lately it’s official.

We have a one year contract position open for a senior developer for Sakai. Are you scared to apply?

If you’re experienced, you could be married, you could have children. You’re probably comfortable where you are. A one year contract? Are you kidding?

No. I’m not kidding. Come to Notre Dame. Plan on staying. I did. I’ve been here 17 years. That initial one year contract was an opportunity for Notre Dame to get to know the values I hold, the work ethic I bring, my extraordinary creativity, not to mention that I always think strategically. (Like this post – we have great talent at Notre Dame, but we want to add to our talent pool, to seek out and convince the best talent).

They say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s me. Is it you too?

Apply. Check it out. What’ve you got to lose? The posting:

OpEd on Next Gen Online Learning: The tail wags the dog

I read this morning in InsideHigherEd

The critical difference between replication (with enhancements) of the classroom experience and the potential for the transformation of the classroom experience lies not necessarily in technology, but in four aspirations: A learner focus, an emphasis on interactivity, scalability, and a quest to reduce costs while maintaining quality. We see transformation happen when faculty members don’t see themselves as mere instructors, but as designers, coaches, and members of a learning development team with particular goals in mind.

– Steve Minz, InsideHigherEd, “Next Generation Online Learning,” Nov. 19, 2014.

Honestly, this statement is right on the money. So often the motivation for changing our pedagogy is to chase some bright and shiny technology. Of course, in the chase we realize one person can’t know it all (technology, that is), which is all we needed in the first place – gather a team of complementary disciplines and focus on the learner.

Steve Minz goes one further – change the role of the student: not a consumer but a participant creator contributor.


I am doing that in a small way in a course I’m teaching right now. I have 3 extra credit assignments for students to provide content in the form of assignments which might more simply teach a concept than those I use already, or already existing YouTube videos with high explanatory value. Thr0ughout the course I emphasize the need to learn from the course activities which kinds of activities are best for the way the individual student learns. I want to help in the formation of students who take charge of their own learning. For a lifetime.

Learning Analytics from DLAMOOC

we’ll turn to a definition of learning analytics
that was first used by the Society for Learning Analytics Research in the inaugural conference in 2011, and that is essentially that learning analytics are the measurement, collection,and analysis of reporting of data, specifically we want to look at learners and the context of learners,  because we want to better understand what’s happening with learners, the environment they’re involved in, and how can we improve that to make a better impact on the individual students, but also to help learners in, or the teachers themselves improve their teaching practices, and ultimately, of course, to give institutions the data, the feedback, that they need in order to improve their practices and how they support students, and how they support teachers or faculty as well.

There’s a significant upside to the use of data in the educational experience. Art Graesser, from the University of Memphis, made a statement that through the use of analytics, there is an escalation of the speed of research on many of the problems that exist in education.

Ultimately then, we can do analytics work around everything from social interactions to the types of space that individuals are a part of, to their use of systems such as a learning management system.
Also, to start adapting and improving the content and the learning experience for each individual learner.
Digital Learning Analytics MOOC. U of Texas, Arlington.

Open Source Software Explained via Legos

Thank you Bit Blueprint , engaging, explanatory, and fun!

Why do faculty use an LMS?

I think it’s the Gradebook. It’s the primary difference between a learning management system and many of the other tools helpful to teaching such as Box or Google docs or blogs or wikis. A platform like Sakai is quite a convenience for posting grades from electronic paper submissions, from quizzes, from forum postings, from almost any other gradeable student artifact (electronic or not), and securely displaying them to students. The Sakai Gradebook even does calculations for Instructors and provides histograms of grade distributions.

Sakai open source software

Sakai open source software

At last reckoning, March 2014, nearly 40% of Notre Dame instructors used Sakai in some fashion or other. They touch 80% of our undergrad students. More startling to me is the 60% of Notre Dame instructors who don’t use Sakai. Why they don’t use Sakai is probably due to many factors – not enough time to learn it, the perception that it will be daunting, perhaps even a failed attempt to grasp it, or not being aware of the people and resources to turn to when setting it up for the first time. But my bigger question is what are these Instructors using to keep their student grades?
I met an Instructor two years ago who showed me their ledger, the same style as an accounting ledger from an office supplier. All grades for all classes for each student they taught were neatly transcribed. It was elegant. It was permanent. It was accessible to the instructor. It was a tried and true method perfected through regular yearly use. I’m sure the instructor did not share this ledger with their students because it was not possible to see only one students’ grades; I don’t know if the instructor scheduled office appointments with each student for every grade to apprise each student. Surely not… Did they use personal emails to inform students of their grades?
More often though, I talk to instructors who keep grades in alternative electronic gradebooks. The most popular electronic gradebook is plain ole Microsoft Excel. Those who know Excel well have embedded formulas that automatically calculate students’ averages, provide stats, categorize Homework, Quizzes and Exams, and weight them appropriately to their syllabus. – Really, all the things the Sakai Gradebook does but without having to know Excel formulas. These instructors are in the same boat when it comes to regularly and frequently distributing grades to students. How do they do it? I don’t know.
As Notre Dame’s LMS administrator these past 10 years, I can remember when only the technologically adventurous used such platforms – yes, they wanted to easily distribute grades to students behind a secure login, but they also have been ever pushing the envelope of what they can do inside and outside the classroom through engaging students everywhere that students learn, including the Internet.
Today because of this one feature, the Gradebook, more faculty are simply using our LMS, Sakai, to make their grading processes more efficient. Maybe later they’ll find value in some of the other features, but for now, they just use the Gradebook. And because of this, we’re asking ourselves if we picked the right Gradebook. Does it do everything needed for the different ways instructors record grades?
The Gradebook we picked (GB2) does well if the items to be graded are all based on points or all based on percentages. It works with number grades, but not letter grades (except for a final grade). It allows instructors to create categories to weight like Assignments, Projects, and Exams. But recent criticism suggests faculty want more. Not all faculty want points converted to percentages for students. Faculty want their excel spreadsheet imports to do more – to upload comments or letter grades, in other words, non-numeric data not used by our chosen Gradebook for calculations. They want more flexibility in what they display to students. Some want to only display the running course grade (based on work completed to date) but not the percentage it represents – because they will grade on a curve at the end of the term.
Some faculty who do use other Sakai tools love that they can collect electronic submissions, grade them electronically and return both the marked up submission (such as a word doc or spreadsheet) and the grade for it, all within Sakai. Others have built multiple choice quizzes that are automatically graded by Sakai and serve to let students know how well they’re doing on reading or homework.

  • If you have general comments or feedback on Sakai and/or on the Sakai Gradebook, or if you’ve found particular Internet tools helpful, we’d love to hear from you at . Meanwhile, if you’re exploring tools for the fall, here are a couple of excellent resources to stimulate your thought:
  • NspireD2 “Explore new ways to integrate technology into teaching & learning.” You’ll find this blog at – great tips and reviews by the Kaneb Center’s Chris Clark and others.
  • Why not talk through your course with the Kaneb Center for their direct recommendations? Consultations can be scheduled online at .
  • Have you seen the site yet for Notre Dame’s Office of Digital Learning? It’s already a great resource. Check out
  • If you already use Sakai, or have a question specific to it, our site is

University of Notre Dame is #3

Use of open source software