The benefits of group think: building collaborative process in higher education

Digitalization is impacting all sectors, acting as both enabler and disruptor of traditional operational models. In higher education, technology is demanding new skill sets of graduates, while it creates new mediums for the support of dynamic, just-in-time, experiential learning. But for demand and delivery to coalesce in a way that serves learners, employers and educational institutions, new collaborative approaches to education are required. In this article, guest contributor David Porter, CEO of eCampusOntario, describes the development of community practice in two key areas – micro-certification and open platforms that can support ongoing tech innovation. Porter’s subject is higher education where cooperation between public and private sector has been elusive; however, his perspective on collaborative design may be usefully applied in other sectors as well. (ed.)

In higher education today, there is a wealth of opportunity for enhancing job-related knowledge and skills. Innovative courseware and curricula in emerging areas are now packaged by a growing array of institutions in fresh programs that aim for close alignment with changing labour market requirements. As well, more technology providers are creating ready access to dynamic, just-in-time training systems.

David Porter, CEO, eCampusOntario
David Porter, CEO, eCampusOntario

But in the absence of alternative learning recognition frameworks, this abundance of choice can be overwhelming for learners, educators and potential employers looking to establish the most rich, reliable and ready educational pathways for students. How can we help education consumers and producers set mutually beneficial priorities and allocate resources appropriately in the face of information overload generated by multiple opportunities? And who should be at the table to ensure that educational content is relevant to all stakeholders?

Traditionally, policy has led practice in higher education, with government and educational leaders specifying goals and the means to achieve them. Today, this approach is flipped: practice is leading policy, with diverse groups of educators, technicians, industry representatives, and students exploring new options designed to help learners make the best educational choices for their life circumstance.

Oftentimes, the involvement of multiple stakeholders can translate to siloed activity, as institutions, for-profit and non-profit sectors work to develop discrete solutions in relative isolation. Through collaboration, however, it is possible for process-led initiatives to better align education with workforce needs, and to streamline pathways, as the following examples demonstrate.

Micro-certification: inter-institutional collaboration

As part of workforce development initiatives, colleges and universities are beginning to consider micro-certification, a new way of recognizing student mastery of knowledge, attitudes and skills in relation to specific job requirements. But, if micro-certification is a more frequent topic of conversation these days, there is still little agreement in academia on how to make this happen. Many institutions would like to make micro-certification a permutation of what they already do – take an existing course and divide it into modules – rather than rethink the delivery of content and skills to create a program that adds value to existing offerings. As a result, lack of consensus on a common framework and general principles of micro-certification have continued to dog broad acceptance and timely roll out of an alternative system of recognition.

To encourage discussion that would enable educational institutions to bring forward appropriate learning models, and employers to specify skills needed, eCampusOntario has convened working group sessions, and two Micro-Certification Forums that have each attracted hundreds of attendees. These conversations have not been without conflict. Points of contention often focused on the intersection between the old model and the new: do hours spent count as demonstration of competency? Should the definition of micro-certification be established, first, in the Ontario Qualifications Framework (OQF)? Who is responsible for assessment – industry or institution? eCampusOntario has worked to build consensus through a process of review and consultation that has involved strategists and practitioners at major institutions and leaders in industry and community organizations.

Out of this collaborative design process a community of practice is now beginning to take shape, as participants come to recognize the benefits of give and take, and the importance of drawing on expert knowledge in addressing specific problems. Employers, such as LinkedIn, Shopify, and IBM made significant contributions to the Micro-certification Principles and Framework in an effort to spell out the nature of the ongoing relationship between employers and educators.

This consensus-based process has begun to bear fruit. The framework, which establishes the basis for a more standardized approach to micro-certification, is currently being tested in fourteen pilot projects across the province, from Waterloo to the Soo. The results of those pilots will be shared in February at the annual Micro-Certification Forum and guests will be asked to amend and ratify the framework to guide future activity.

Open ecosystem for experiential learning – collaboration with industry

On the campus of many colleges and universities today, efforts are underway to incorporate leading edge technologies--such as AI, augmented reality, virtual reality--in support of experiential learning. This is a priority for government as well: at the federal level, $56 million has been committed to the development of integrated, experiential learning. To address concerns that a single technology might be anointed to execute on this, eCampusOntario, in partnership with a technology startup Riipen, proposed the creation of a stewardship agreement on open APIs (application program interfaces). Designed to promote technology choice for educational institutions, ensure that tools with different functions would integrate with open API-based platforms, and include a spectrum of technology players, the agreement’s ultimate goal was to ensure that the best tool of choice for a given situation would be deployed.

The Core Commitments for Shared Success stewardship agreement speaks to key requirements for creating open and trusted technology environments. It includes sections that call for adherence to principles on data integrity, data stewardship, privacy, and the use of technology protocols and architectures that would support secure services integrations (e.g. open APIs) and interoperability standards. It calls for open competition between technology providers to support continuous innovation and for recognition of the entire ecosystem (rather than one sector or platform). The document also recognizes that ecosystem stewards “work together towards collective goals and understand the value in minimizing overlap.”

Since each member of this technology-enabled education ecosystem is likely to have its own set of interests, the framework does not preclude the use of proprietary systems, the source of competitive differentiation for most technology vendors. However, “open” APIs are increasingly an industry-wide expectation and a firm requirement in this public/private sector framework, as are partners that adopt a cooperative stance. Riipen, for example, proved a good partner in this eCampusOntario initiative due to the firm’s unique ability to deliver virtual workplaces experiences, but also because of the startup’s openness to new ideas, willingness to collaborate, and readiness to entertain equitable discussions. For other providers, adherence to the framework may evolve out of recognition that a larger opportunity is available within the collaborative environment than without. In any case, the result is a common framework that encourages unity of approach among vendors, while preserving choice in specific technology deployment. For eCampusOntario, the “win” in creating a set of principles on which many can agree lies in breaking new ground: establishing a unified model of practice that can be scaled and replicated in other education development and delivery partnerships with technology providers across the province.

The bottom line

Collaboration is a difficult proposition. It is especially challenging for those in decision-making roles who have to give up control, competitive advantage, or time and resources that might be dedicated to other projects for outcomes that may initially appear to offer little individual reward. But when the knowledge of expert practitioners is harnessed, collaborative initiatives can benefit the organization, while building the prestige of participants. The tangible outcomes of collaboration – being first to explore new ground, reduce cost, or share resources – are the easiest to achieve and to measure.

But the lasting benefit is delivered by the intangibles, the community of practice that emerges through collaborative process to serve a laudable, higher order goal. The elements that make this work include setting clear expectations and roles so that collaborative efforts do not become onerous. Trust and communication are equally important, as they bridge cultural and institutional difference that can inhibit interaction.

Ultimately, collaboration is a leap of faith that must entail shared vision for improving education and recognition that its possible to achieve more by working together than through isolated effort. Through inter-institutional collaboration, some momentum has been generated on first principles and in micro-certification programming. Through eCampusOntario’s industry partnerships, an open ecosystem model that supports technology collaboration for ongoing innovation has been established.

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