Evolving the Student Learning Experience

A Critical Challenge for Academic Leaders

The Importance of Learning Experience Design

The O’Donnell Learn research team recently conducted a national study of provosts and other academic leaders to understand how higher education institutions are innovating their learning experiences.  We gathered insights from over 170 leaders at all types of colleges and universities, from 2-year and 4-year institutions to doctoral, public and private, conducting both interviews and a survey.

Results were surprisingly consistent across all types of institutions:  redesigning courses/programs or designing new experiences is very important to the large majority of provosts and academic leaders--72% as you can see in this graph--and important to nearly all.

Today’s students need new learning practices in order to remain engaged and attain success --

whether degree completion, workforce alignment or reskilling/upskilling.  The shrinking “traditional” student demographic is also causing institutions to rethink their student audience, focusing more on returning adults who need to complete degrees and/or workers who need new skills and knowledge to remain relevant. As one respondent comments:

“Really go to the students to see what they need and want -- learning is happening so differently nowadays, and we need to be tuned in to that.”

These changing student needs are causing institutions to seek innovative practices that better serve today’s learners. The data also suggests that institutions are focused on a common set of initiatives, shown below:

These initiatives are so common that 91% of our respondents are currently working on more than one of them. Many initiatives are designed to promote student success and retention by improving student engagement through course redesign, through affordability measures and by targeting underserved students, and using research-based practices to deliver the learning experience. As one academic leader comments:

 “All learning design innovations must have student success (completion, gainful employment, and graduate satisfaction) at the core.”

Initiatives are also geared to serving returning adults and non-traditional students.  Many institutions (73%) are offering new online degrees that offer flexibility, help to ensure greater inclusivity for all students, and ultimately promote student success. 


We asked respondents about their current and expected deployment of research-based learning practices.  The graph below shows that about half of the respondents are already implementing most of these practices extensively, whereas the other half expects that their use will grow rapidly in the next three years.  An exception is adaptive learning, where there is already extensive adoption at many institutions, so only 22% expect this practice to grow rapidly.

Scaling with External Providers

Leaders told us that they struggle to scale initiatives beyond a small cohort of departments, courses and/or faculty.  It is difficult to build momentum for new initiatives and many instructors have “innovation fatigue”; schools also struggle with getting an initiative across the finish line.  There is a lot of energy when the initiative is launched, but over time it loses steam. And, too often, the players lose sight of implementation, as one leader notes:

“Don’t leave out implementation. Getting an institution to think about and define the operational piece is critical. What are the barriers? How do you bring faculty, students, administrators or creditors into your decisions? What technology partners are you gonna have to integrate, etc?”

Leaders consistently told us that they need support from external players to craft and implement successful learning experiences, particularly when an initiative is implemented across siloes within an institution.  Nearly 40% of respondents have worked with an outside vendor, and the institutions that report their schools as more mature in these types of initiatives are also more likely to have worked with external players.

Yet, many leaders noted that the external support they’ve received in the past has been inadequate. With just 50% of respondents reporting satisfaction with outside vendors, there is clearly a need for vendors to develop more successful partnerships with institutions.

Faculty express dissatisfaction with external providers when they feel loss of control or loss of their mission and culture. And, leaders stress that each institution is unique, while vendors generally try to push a one-size-fits-all solution. Many question the traditional OPM model, noting that you often trade long-term ROI for short-term efficiency. One participant reflects,

“I have seen many partnerships fail and some succeed.  Those that succeed are built on aligned values and great communication. The corporate world and higher education are very different cultures.  As long as you come across as an understanding partner rather than a group trying to "take over", you will be successful. Know your client as well as you know course design and you will succeed.”

In order to create successful learning experiences, there has to be a partnership between the players. Designers and faculty must work as a team to improve course design and promote student success. The graph below shows the importance of partnering in the institution/provider relationship:

For partnerships with external providers to succeed, faculty must have control of the student experience. Institutions don’t want to “outsource” learning, but seek support to promote innovation that ultimately leads to greater student success. As one academic leader says:

“In the end, the faculty need to be comfortable with any consultant and what the consultant is doing. Without the faculty buying in, success will be difficult.”

In Conclusion

Higher education is evolving as the “traditional” learner is changing and student populations are declining.  Given this demanding environment, it is no surprise that redesigning learning experiences is extremely important to the majority of academic leaders. Most institutions are already engaged in major learning redesign, but lack the resources to implement and scale the level of transformation desired. This shift is creating a demand for partnerships between institutions and external providers. 


However, partnerships with external vendors are often less successful than they should be, too often hampered by lack of communication, failure to work in tandem towards the same vision and poor collaboration with faculty. 


A robust partnership between an institution and an external provider can help the institution and its faculty to grow and succeed. Ultimately it allows for institutions to quickly and successfully build and scale the new learning experiences so urgently needed. The schools that succeed will find new collaborations and continually seek new ways to innovate.

O'Donnell Learn is looking for partners that will help us design solutions that enable institutions to transform the student learning experience.