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What’s the Best Way to Create Innovation in Higher Education?

What’s the Best Way to Create Innovation in Higher Education?


A few years ago, I was asked to develop and teach a course on Education Innovation and Entrepreneurship to a cohort of doctoral students enrolled in the Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

As I constructed the syllabus for the one-semester course, I realized that I needed to find instructional content/materials to provide the students with some knowledge about business models in order to adequately complete the final assignment. That final project was an 8- to 10-page paper outlining in some detail a unique idea to generate revenues or reduce expenses for their institution.

Most of the students in the cohort were administrators at a college or university. Very few had worked outside of higher education. In addition, very few had earned an undergraduate or graduate degree in business. I had to find content that provided enough information to allow all of these students, regardless of education or experience, to build a simplistic business model.

Eventually, I discovered a book, Business Model Generation, that I assigned as one of the required readings for the course. Co-authors Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur collected ideas and feedback from 470 “Business Model Canvas” practitioners in 45 countries and wrote a book that concisely explains business strategic concepts and tools and makes them easy to organize and explain using the Business Model Canvas.

The book was perfect. I didn’t have to compile a collection of chapters from textbooks in marketing, accounting, and finance and assume that the students in my class could learn enough from that material to cogently support a revenue-generating or cost-cutting idea.

Fast forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic has upset the traditional higher education business model. Enrollments are down and costs are up. Observers of the sector are calling for institutions to innovate in order to emerge stronger once a vaccine is approved, distributed, and proven successful. Some believe that only the strongest of the traditional colleges and universities will survive and continue with a business model similar to their pre-pandemic model.

From 2002 until August of 2020, I was fortunate to lead American Public University System (APUS). We have been innovative in many ways. As one of the first universities in the U.S. to operate wholly online, we built systems and infrastructure over the past 25 years that enabled us to successfully operate uninterrupted during the pandemic.

In most cases, our innovations took years to conceptualize and implement. We built an online university from the ground up, so we didn’t have the advantage/disadvantage of an existing business to compete for resources or to interfere with our thinking about the best way to serve our students online.

I asked myself the question: If I were a senior-level administrator at a traditional university impacted by COVID-19, how would I go about evaluating the opportunities for innovating and implementing change during this crisis? I’m sure the colleges and universities that can afford it are evaluating proposals from many of the consulting practices with a higher education focus.

For the colleges and universities that can’t afford the seven- to eight-figure consulting fees, what options are there? Some institutions have senior leaders who have operated in a crisis and are experienced at cutting expenses. Cutting expenses won’t solve the problem in the long run, particularly if the traditional model is broken and innovation is required. Neither will reading The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed and deciding to follow the good idea fairy by announcing that you’re going to serve the unmet needs of a non-traditional group of adult students and add online degree programs.

There are many books about innovation. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could comprise a lengthy literature review of the top 50. However, a few years ago, senior leaders at a consulting firm called the Doblin Group published a book, Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs. The book is based on the firm’s years of experience as a leading innovation consulting firm.

The introduction to the book states that executives have equated innovation with the development of new products. From the authors’ experiences, creating new products provides the lowest return on investment (ROI) and the least competitive advantage. Based on their experiences, they created a 10 types of innovation framework to identify opportunities beyond products and develop viable innovations with higher ROIs.

The 10 types of innovation are organized in three categories: configuration, offering, and experience. Under configuration, there are four types: profit model, network, structure, and process. Under offering, there are two types: product performance and product system. Under experience, there are four types: service, channel, brand, and customer engagement.

The consultants at Doblin believe that an effective innovation requires at least five of the types to be implemented successfully. One example is how Zappos incorporated an innovative brand, customer experience, channel, product assortment, and business model to create a unique position in the market.

The consultants at Doblin also identified over 100 innovation tactics which are known ways that the 10 types of innovation can be used. In addition to writing about them in the book, they offer these tactics as a set of cards that can be purchased separately and used as a tool for teams to utilize in their innovation planning and development.

Doblin is now a consulting arm of Deloitte, and their consultants are likely available for engagements for companies with the resources to hire them. For anyone contemplating the establishment of an innovation department or task force, I would suggest reading Ten Types of Innovation. You may ultimately decide to engage a consulting firm to assist your institution, but the few hours required to read the book will make you a better participant, regardless of which direction you pursue.



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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