Home Accountability The Provost Challenge: Driving Innovation to Enhance Student Engagement and Learning Outcomes
The Provost Challenge: Driving Innovation to Enhance Student Engagement and Learning Outcomes

The Provost Challenge: Driving Innovation to Enhance Student Engagement and Learning Outcomes


Vernon Smith Guest Post by Dr. Vernon Smith

Something about a challenge motivates us. Whether it’s the first transatlantic flight, landing on the moon, or taking on one of numerous YouTube challenges going viral on smartphones everywhere, there is something about challenges that creates energy, creativity, and innovation. Even the U.S. government has harnessed the power of challenges, from using RFID to locate items on the International Space Station, launching payloads into space within a matter of days, or helping to prevent opioid misuse in expectant and new mothers. Challenges with cash prizes are available from various agencies on Challenge.gov, which reports awarding over $250 million in prizes to creative individuals, small business owners, and academic researchers.

One of the wonderful aspects of the challenge process is that you don’t have to do the challenge to participate; you can learn from the process itself and even assist in judging entries for which you have expertise and interest. However, if you have a unique approach or an innovative idea, you can join the students, entrepreneurs, technology-inclined, and academic researchers in the challenge to be the first and best.

Drawing inspiration from both Challenge.gov and previous APUS Provost’s Challenges, I extended a formal invitation earlier this year to our faculty and staff. The challenge was to enhance student engagement and the student experience within the classroom by conceiving the next evolution of weekly forum posts. APUS uses weekly forum engagements to assure substantive and meaningful interactions between faculty and students — one aspect of elevating our courses to be optimally rigorous and relevant. The challenge requirements included needing a foundation in sound pedagogical practice, being accessible to all students, and increasing interaction between students, students and course content, and students with their instructor.

In total, 17 teams collectively composed of 37 colleagues submitted proposals. The 14 proposals accepted then advanced to a prototyping phase where the teams developed a working version of their solutions and presented their work to university leaders, including school deans and key staff. After the first round of evaluation, five teams advanced to the final round of presentations that were evaluated by a distinguished panel of judges, including Dr. Wally Boston, Chief of Staff Dr. Gwen Hall, and Chief Technology Officer Patrik Dyberg, among others.

Noteworthy forum-related topics included the following:

  • Hackathons: A social learning space that involves teams of students working on a specific real-world problem and developing a unique solution to that problem, allowing interdisciplinary collaboration and active learning opportunities.
  • Forum Relays, including Take-a-Poll posts, Video Wikis, Killer Calculations (find what’s missing), Excel Exploration, and many others. Each idea came with a library of tools needed to implement that type of relay as the weekly engagement opportunity.
  • Literature Circles: Small groups of students who gather to discuss a text (or texts) in an in-depth manner through specific pathways based upon their assigned roles of discussion. With defined roles, forums become more purposeful and structured, yet provide for flexibility, creativity, and change.

The overall winning solution was presented by the team led by faculty member Natascha Gast, who brought a social-media like interface to forums. She adapted Padlet, a web-based application that creates an online “bulletin board” to which anyone with the link to a “wall” can add text, images, files, audio, video, links, and more by simply double-clicking anywhere on the page. She had great responses from students in the weekly forums and saw more peer interactions. She will continue a wider pilot as part of an implementation strategy as we explore how to expand the innovation for early-adopter faculty members.

Congratulations to all of our finalists for their professionalism, innovation and collective commitment to ensure that our students and graduates have the best possible learning experience and outcome. We learned a lot from the 2018 Provost’s Innovation Challenge and look forward to another successful competition in 2019.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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