All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Understanding When Innovations in Online Education Matter

Concurrent Session 6

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Innovation is necessary in higher education, but “innovative” doesn’t always equate to “better.” This session will emphasize why innovations matter in online education, how to determine institutional capacity and readiness to innovate, how to measure impact, and how to operationalize an innovation for successful routine use. 


Jonathan Kaplan is the president and CEO of Walden University, responsible for the academic quality, financial performance, management, accreditation, and governance of Walden. He previously served as president of Walden from 2007–2012, and in a range of other executive positions within Laureate Education, Inc., a leading global higher education company. Mr. Kaplan has had a distinguished career in government, public policy, and law in Washington, D.C. He served in the White House as chief of staff of the National Economic Council and as special assistant to the president for economic policy under President Bill Clinton. He also held posts at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and on Capitol Hill, focusing on economic and domestic policy issues. Before his government service, he practiced law as an associate at Covington & Burling, a leading international law firm. Mr. Kaplan serves as an observer on the board of directors for Coursera, an education technology company offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) around the world. He also serves on the board of the Presidents’ Forum—an organization of accredited institutions focused on advancing excellence and innovation in online education—and on the online leadership advisory council for University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), a national association of universities offering professional, continuing, and online education. Mr. Kaplan was appointed in 2013 by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to serve on a congressional task force conducting a comprehensive review of federal higher education regulations and laws. Mr. Kaplan graduated cum laude from Harvard College with an AB in Government. He received his JD from Boston University School of Law, where he was an editor of the Boston University Law Review. He currently resides in Bethesda, Maryland, with his family.
Marie A. Cini, Ph.D., was appointed as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs in April, 2013, after most recently serving as vice president and dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at UMUC. Cini had been Dean of the Undergraduate School at UMUC since joining UMUC on February 1, 2008. Her work as provost is to create and implement an academic vision that is learner-centered, high quality, and low cost, based on learning science and technology. She serves as the President of the Online Learning Consortium. Cini has over 20 years of experience with various facets of adult and distance education, building experience with scalable, high quality program offerings. Right before joining UMUC, she held the positions of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Interim Dean of the School of Management at City University of Seattle in Bellevue, WA. In these positions, she led several major change initiatives in Academic Affairs. Cini has also served as the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts programs at Thomas Edison State College in NJ (1993), and as a Director of Academic Programs and Associate Professor in the (now) School of Leadership and Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in PA (1996-2001). In both of these positions, she worked collaboratively with teams of faculty and staff to build and improve educational program offerings for adult students. Related to her expertise in leadership studies, Cini served as the Director of Academic Affairs for the Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland College Park from 2001-2003. Cini has published and presented on the topics of authentic assessment and academic integrity, leadership development in adult learners, retention and adult learners, group newcomers and innovation, and program development across cultures. As an early adopter of online education, Dr. Cini continues to be interested in the scholarship of learning outside of the traditional classroom space. She earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, with a focus on the social aspects of learning. Dr. Cini is a Fellow of the Online Learning Consortium.
Dr. Connie Johnson is Colorado Technical University's (CTU) chief academic officer and provost, working with both online and ground degree programs. She has oversight of academic affairs, including faculty, curriculum, classroom experience, and accreditation. During her time at CTU, Connie has initiated adaptive learning technology implementation, effective leadership of academics, women's leadership, leading academics through change, and effective technology implementation in the online classroom including the promotion of academics, faculty and student engagement through social media. Connie has served in higher education for over 20 years with extensive experience in online and ground teaching, administration, and leadership. Additionally, Connie has extensive experience in regional accreditation, curriculum implementation, and faculty training and development. She is a trained peer evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), has completed and served as a facilitator in the ACE Chief Academic Officer Institute, and is a member of the CTU Board of Trustees. Her educational background includes a Doctorate of Education, organizational leadership emphasis (2010), and a Master of Business Administration in management (1991) from Nova Southeastern University; and a Bachelor of Science with honors in criminal justice from Florida State University.
Robbie K. Melton, Ph.D. is a full tenured professor at Tennessee State University. Major research studies include Strategic Planning for Emerging IOE (Internet of Everything) Smart Connected Mobile Devices for Education and Workforce Development. She has published and presented around the nation on the impact and value of mobilization for education and the workforce and has acquired a new distinction as an “App-ologist” due to her study of the pedagogy and best teaching practices with mobilization, quality standards for the utilization of mobile apps, and for her creation of the Mobile App Education and Workforce Resource Center (50,000 + Apps that have been aligned with over ninety-five subject areas from Pre-K to Ph.D., including workforce careers, professional development and lifelong learning, according to one’s mobile device of choice). Melton is the winner of numerous awards; the latest being the 2016 Online Learning Consortium Fellow, 2016 Richard Jonsen Educational Technologies top honor for her lifetime work in educational technology, 2015 MERLOT Leadership Visionary Award, CDE Top 30 2014 Technologists, Transformers and Trailblazers, 2013 Apple Distinguished Educator, 2012, Technology WOW Award, 2013 eAfrica Innovator Education Award.

Extended Abstract

There is currently a vibrant dialogue about innovation in higher education. Through the years, postsecondary education in the United States has adapted as the times changed and as needs dictated. However, the rise of the new has not necessarily replaced the old.

In the late 1800s, land-grant universities responded to the needs of our rapidly industrializing nation by endowing new areas of study, such as agriculture and engineering. The GI Bill expanded access to higher education for those who served our country, and Pell Grants, beginning in the 1970s, created educational opportunities for those most in need. Community colleges proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s, expanding access even more; and today, online programs are breaking the barriers of fixed class times and locations for students around the world.

Though widely considered “disruptive” during their time, none of these changes replaced what came before. Instead, our definition of higher education has expanded. Ultimately, higher education has evolved to meet market demand, and to remain relevant in an increasingly crowded space, innovation in higher education and particularly online education must continue.

There is no doubt that changes are occurring, but not everything is changing—and for good reason—and not every change is better. While many equate “innovative” with “better,” it’s important to be discerning about the context underlying innovation, and what societal and economic factors are driving those changes. As Michelle R. Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, has said, we tend to focus on the “what” instead of the “why” and the “how.” There needs to be more contextualization. Why does this new model matter? How is it improving outcomes?

For innovation to proceed—and not just for the sake of innovation—institutions must first review their culture and infrastructure to determine if they are prepared to innovate. Despite capacity to innovate, it will not matter what the innovation is if an institution cannot resource it, apply it, and incorporate it into its system. For example, institutions should understand if the innovation can occur in the same system as the current programs; what kind of change management, if any, is required; the impact innovation might have on all facets of the institution; and institutional capabilities to scale up the innovation, which may include separating out the innovation, multiple rounds of piloting, letting it grow organically, or choosing not to scale up at all.

Panelists will discuss examples from their own institutions on developing and scaling different initiatives. Walden University often implements innovations through multiple rounds of piloting. While the iterative approach can take more time to launch, the university realizes better results for its initiatives as was the case with its New Student Orientation as part of its First Year Student Progress effort. Colorado Technical University implemented adaptive learning using the strategy of piloting courses for several sessions and expanding to the full population after data was reviewed and revisions were implemented. University of Maryland University College is in the process of moving to Open Educational Resources rather than textbooks for all courses by fall 2016. UMUC has developed a scaled model for this, including a team that locates and curates the resources so faculty can link them directly to learning outcomes. Other examples from the panelists will demonstrate that innovations in online education may or may not include focus on changes in technology. Examples include changes to term structure, changes in relationships with other institutions, and the use of adaptive learning.

In this session, panelists will discuss why innovations matter in online education and how institutions can operationalize the results. In particular, we will address how institutions can determine their readiness to innovate for success, why institutions need to remain steadfast on a pedagogical approach despite the desire to embellish technology, and how to develop a plan to effectively measure and communicate the innovation’s impact. We will also share our perspectives as real-life partners in innovation and analyze useful innovations through interactive discussions.

As institutions endeavor to innovate to compete with global demand, it is imperative that students remain the focus of innovation. That means aligning to students without assuming who they are or what they need. Identifying and understanding who the innovation is targeted to reach will lay the foundation for how to innovate., i.e., pedagogy must come before technology. As higher education continues to grapple with this paradigm, institutions must align their goals with the problems they are trying to solve, which may include learning, retention, time to degree completion, or innovations applicable outside the classroom.

Success or failure of implementing an innovation is attributed to, among other factors, having specific measurable goals in place as well as communicating the innovation. Educational innovation dissemination is based upon the constructs of awareness, intention to adopt, actual adoption, and routine use (Hazen, Wu, Sankar, Jones-Farmer, 2012). Though it can be difficult to back off of an innovation after committing time, talent, and funding, if an innovation fails to align with students, it will not meet its goals and therefore will not adopt routine use.

In this session, we will share our holistic perspective on approaches to innovations for online education through our own experiences, as well as discuss industry innovations and their growing influence. Interactive discussions and case study review will include how an initial attempt at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) missed expectations and why MOOCs 2.0 will have more promise because of all that was learned about what problem they must solve. For example, although MOOCs are not disruptive it does not mean that MOOCs can be ignored by higher education; rather, MOOCs have influenced a higher standard of quality (de Langen and van den Bosch, 2013).

We will also preview new anticipated research about going mobile, including how online institutions are playing catch up and what questions should be asked when forming a mobile strategy to increase access for online learners. In addition, we will discuss how adaptive learning helps meet students where they are and the importance of innovations for those who support students.

Participants will leave the session with a framework for their institution to develop a strategic approach that identifies the problem for which its innovation will solve, determines the minimal capacity the institution needs to be able to take an innovation forward once its developed, and ways in which the institution can verify and communicate its innovation’s measurable impact on student outcomes.


De Langen, F., & van den Bosch, H. (2013). Massive Open Online Courses: disruptive innovations or disturbing inventions? Online Learning, 28 (3), 216-226.

Hazen, B.T., Wu, Y., Sankar, C.S., & Jones-Farmer, L.A. (2012). A proposed framework for educational innovation dissemination. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 40(3), 301-321.