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Online innovation and partnerships as core university enterprise – opinion

The phenomenal growth and success story of Arizona State University, as a journey from a teachers’ college to a world-class major research university to a global online innovator, has been bolstered by bold, determined, long-term, strategic ventures undertaken through partnerships. 

The accolade of having been ranked the most innovative US university for 7 consecutive years by US News and World Report is the evidence of esteem. But among indicators of a societal purpose being met is the phenomenal growth in student numbers and degree production, increasingly in an online modality, who represent a demographic now representative of the general population, and who increasingly complete studies and succeed in the workforce. 

This demonstrable success is giving the confidence, platform, and foundations to embark on even bolder goals for growth and global reach.

Many global universities were already venturing increasingly into online education well before the pandemic. They did so as available technology, student demands, and increasing combinations of studying and working became the prevailing student expectation and experience. 

Just about every global university switched to almost entirely online delivery as a crisis response during the lockdown years of the pandemic itself. But not all were equally prepared for such a rapid switch and not all are equally well placed to extend and build from the lessons learned and the experience gained.

ASU has been building a world-class educational technology-based pedagogy over a journey of 20 years. The past two decades have seen the operationalisation of the New American University model envisioned by ASU president Michael M. Crow, which calls for academic excellence, broad accessibility, and research with societal impact. Online learning facilitated by ASU faculty has been key to the success of this model.

From his position as Dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, Phil Regier was given responsibility to establish EdPlus, a central innovation and enterprise unit within ASU that houses ASU Online, and is focused on the design and scalable delivery of digital teaching and learning across the institution. 

In contrast to how such units or centres or projects developed in other universities, EdPlus has taken a different trajectory and achieved very different outcomes.

The overall charter of ASU, to measure itself by the students it includes and how they succeed, gives a dominant goal and purpose for EdPlus as a venture. And the commitment to partnerships by ASU has allowed that purpose to be served by an online venture and initiative that has seen growth approaching 83,000 online students, across comprehensive disciplines. It has now become a mainstream core enterprise of ASU strategy and operations.

The partnerships behind this journey have taken two forms. Partnerships with employers, such as Starbucks and Uber, that includes cohorts of students who may otherwise not have access to excellent research-inspired education. These partnerships, among others, have opened new pathways for students and allowed routes to support beyond more traditional and capped scholarship schemes.

But of even greater consequence to the supply model at ASU have been the partnerships with EdTech innovators and investors first established 13 years ago, many through the ASU+GSV Summit. GSV is a global investment platform focused on the $7 trillion educational technology sector.

This partnership has allowed dialogue to be established between leading tech innovators, university leaders, and pedagogy practitioners to allow continuous innovation and development of world-class educational technology-based pedagogies.

The ASU+ASU Summit has become the premiere convener to drive conversation and explore solutions to improve access in education. The Summit has allowed those across the education and technology sector to not only highlight groundbreaking advancements, such as what ASU is doing with Dreamscape Learn, but to also identify new partnerships and create new ways to stimulate innovation.

From a first summit involving a few hundred attendees in 2009, the most recent summit in 2022 attracted more than 5,600 attendees and thousands more joining virtually. 

The approach here is not a minor play or dabble in online innovation. There is no sense of doing something in a hurry in a crisis. There is no thought of making online innovation an internal-only and controlled project. And the whole venture is central to university purpose and strategy, with the explicit intent to make it mainstream to the universities transformed future. It is rare, bold and inspiring.

We have got into the habit lately in global universities of turning things on their head, quickly, as a response to a crisis. In some cases, this was critical to business continuity. We are in a different stage now.

While not every university can have the luxury of taking 20 years to build a similar venture to EdPlus, they can all be more strategic and purposeful in targeting where the most likely growth will be in the future.

The lessons we see from the ASU online experience with EdPlus are threefold. First the importance of aligning strategies for online education with institutional mission and purpose and its need for change.

Secondly, recognising that you cannot do it alone but need partnerships with both EdTech providers and the changing nature and pattern of student demand and expectations, that go with your purpose.

And thirdly, that it needs bold and innovative leadership, resilience and a widely shared innovation culture. We discussed many of these lessons together on the most recent HEDx podcast episode that you can access here.

Embarking on such ventures is not easy. To catch up, higher education systems like Australia might need to work collaboratively, collectively, and with input from those that have already made the journey, to themselves succeed.

The promise of outcomes, growth, and fulfilment of purpose in doing so are great. The consequences of being left behind may be severe.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx.

Professor Phil Regier, University Dean of Educational Initiatives and CEO of EdPlus, Arizona State University.

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