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Aurora Institute

Operationalizing Paradigm Shifts in HigherEd

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Tammi Cooper

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

PShiftThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 11, 2016.

At the beginning of this series, Tom Vander Ark described his college experience to illustrate the profound impact relationships can have on students. He described the iterative process of discovering his Purpose, finding aPathway to that purpose, and then building a network of People to help him stay on track.

I’m sure most readers can connect personally with his story–in fact, you’ve probably heard some variant of it in every commencement you’ve attended. But despite the ubiquity of our sentiment as educators regarding the importance of these relationships to learning, few colleges attempt to systematically harness these powerful relationships to support student success.

Why is this the case?

Letting A Thousand Silos Bloom

To explore why colleges struggled to systematize learning relationships, we need to consider the environment of a typical college (complex at best) and a collection of warring fiefdoms (at worst). Colleges typically offer services in silos, focusing on specific aspects of a student’s path to success such as academic advising, career services, developmental education, etc.

Communication channels are also siloed, with student communication getting trapped in email accounts, text messages, face-to-face conversations and even social media accounts. The departmental structure and communication technology together prevents colleges from institutionalizing the kind of gestalt approach to student success that Tom Vander Ark needed and that all students can benefit from.

These silos are particularly troublesome when trying to serve the incredibly diverse students we see today. Fidelis argues that the best way to empathize with students is via thoughtful application of student personas. And the best way to measure our success with these students is not with the trailing indicators of value, like retention–after all, when they’ve dropped out it’s too late–but with a direct measure of value based on their willingness to repeat their decision via the Net Outcomes Score.

Mission Improbable

Change is always hard, but this concept of transformation to a relationship driven organization can feel a bit like mission impossible. Most universities don’t even seriously ask their students what their long-term goals (purpose) are beyond the application, much less help the student to construct a personalized pathway of courses, credentials, non-academic experiences and mentors. Just writing that sentence leaves me thinking “You’ve got to be kidding, right?”

As an educator I can attest that it’s work that we should be doing but, as a former Associate Provost at the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor, I also know how hard it is. My friend and now colleague at Fidelis Gunnar Counselman wrote, “any organizational redesign must be done slowly and with care.” However, he may have underestimated what we are proposing.

I’d argue that this effort to align schools around people, path and purpose is nothing short of a paradigm shift. Consider these changes:

 From  To
 Students access services on their initiative,  often independently of one another  Students are proactively guided to services based on their goals
 Students participate in courses to complete  their degrees  Students assemble learning experiences, credentials and degrees that  prepare them to achieve a compelling purpose
 College lets students defer hard decisions  about life  College provides students a laboratory in which to experiment and  rapidly iterate to find their purpose more effectively
 Students find mentors with some luck and  serendipity  Students are proactively introduced to potential mentors and  organizations in which they can find mentors
 Students get a job after they complete their  degrees  Career planning is a natural extension of the integrated college  experience


Even in my most recent position as VP of Innovation at the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor, it was difficult for me to envision another way. After all, so many people have experienced the school structure “as it is,” and shifting to a new paradigm is hard.

The theory is easy to agree with, but envisioning the effort to operationalize these ideas is an incredibly challenge. Strangely enough, what’s pushed me has been developing a deep familiarity with Learning Relationship Management–the software itself. Really understanding the capabilities of the Fidelis system allowed me to begin to connect the dots and consider the possibilities through each lens.

People (like an advisor or student success coach at your school) can systematically:

  • Communicate with students and track all activity automatically.
  • Review a dashboard of data about a student (that’s customizable).
  • Know whether a student is registered for next semester, their academic standing, the last time they were communicated with, which notes were taken during that meeting, how they interacted with a mentor or mentee and whether or not they completed a learning app on the financial aid process recommended to them last week.

What are you currently tracking that you gather from disparate systems that fits here from the time a student enrolls until they become alumni? What else might be useful to you?

The Path (the roadmap for a student to reach their purpose) facilitates:

  • Following a student’s degree progress and their coursework within the system.
  • Visual reminders of ALL goals (for example, running a marathon impacts a student’s ability to fulfill their purpose – let’s recognize that).
  • Student-access to custom learning apps sent just when they need it.
  • Sending a re-usable tutorial accessible by all your students about resume writing, how to register for next semester, how to seek tutoring – on a personalized, per student basis with a few clicks.

Might there be other uses you can think of? Creating developmental content, for example? Consider all the things a student needs at different points in their educational experience and the ability to push it out to them on-demand.

The Purpose is the guide:

  • Hand-in-hand with students, your staff helps them define their purpose.
  • The purpose displays on the home page, right next to their path to get there (i.e., courses, learning apps, other goals), which is next to the people helping them make it happen (coach, mentors, mentees).


As we’ve described, there’s organization redesign, but first and foremost it’s a paradigm shift. A shift to caring first and foremost about the students and their desired purpose, helping them determine the best path to get there and connecting them to the people who will help them reach those goals. It’s easy to see why the shift is important, but it has to be operationalized well to achieve its promise.

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