Can Higher Ed Combine Silos to Advance the Learning Experience?

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Nov 07, 2019

In the past few months, I have been traveling around the country, conversing with university leaders about changing the learning experience, making it more relevant and successful for today’s learners—for working adults, for underserved populations, etc. What strikes me, is that we have siloed out our change drivers so that each becomes a niche. This results in none being as effective as they should be. These include: OER (open education resources), digital delivery and education technology, online learning, and professional and continuing education. Each of these has its own initiatives, its own departments or centers on campus, and even its own associations.

I have recently attended conferences sponsored by organizations who live in these silos: UPCEA for professional and continuing ed, Open Ed for OER, WCET for technology-enhanced learning, OLC for online learning. These are vital organizations and important vehicles for academic leaders and innovators to learn, to exchange ideas and best practices, to collaborate, and to energize. I am not looking to minimize their importance. Yet, there is a huge amount of overlap, and many of the most successful initiatives combine more than one of these–such as fully OER online stackable credentials.

It seems that there is room for the leaders in each of these silos to come together in some sort of structured collaboration. I envision a dialog around innovation and change that takes the best from each silo, that gets institutions thinking about minimizing silos in order to advance learning.

Given that a blog post doesn’t have any constraints, I am going to blue sky some ideas–a “what if” scenario:

1. An uber fall conference on learning experience and business model innovation.

  • Designed by our best learning designers so that we actually practice what we preach. Maybe it looks more like a Boy Scout Jamboree and less like a lecture-based conference.

  • Lots of best-practice sharing and opportunities to explore the successes and challenges of leaders, and to bring their learnings into your context.

  • More design thinking and “learn by doing” so that leaders can build (or flex) their innovation-management muscles.

  • Including mini-conference experiences that enable each organization to break out, meet and have a focused event.

2. Cross-organization cohorts that collaborate to design, experiment, iterate and share out their learnings around specific issues or initiatives, such as how to sustain innovation or how to evolve business models at an institution or system. Think Conference Board…

3. Summer institutes hosted by member institutions (kind of like the OLC Collaborate meetings) that enable cross-institutional learning and collaboration and a deeper dive then you can get at a conference. Again, the end game is an implementable action plan that will work within the specific context of each institution.

Higher ed institutions are hotbeds for innovations that are too often siloed off into a little corner of the institution or a niche within the ecosystem. Historically, change has been notoriously slow in higher education; yet, the need for change is urgent. Let’s find ways to break down the silos and leave our old ways of convening behind. Let’s find new ways to collaborate in order to solve existing problems and tackle the myriad challenges that are just around the corner.


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