From thinking to doing: a design process for learning fast to innovate well

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

How does your college build capacity for innovation? How do you know if changes are actually improvements? Learn how one college is using improvement science to better serve online students. Take away useful tools for any improvement or innovation project.


Alison has been teaching online since 2002, and can fondly remember the iconic sounds of a dial-up modem connecting to the Internet. She has a BSBE in Information Technologies, and a MS in Vocational Education: Information Technologies from East Carolina University. Recently she earned a certificate in Excellence in Online Teaching from Washington State University and became certified as a Quality Matters Peer Reviewer. Currently, Alison is an Associate Professor/Program Director at Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh NC teaching and managing two seated and online applied science degree programs. She has a leadership role on Wake Tech’s Quality Enhancement Project, entitled EPIC, as the Online Certification Coordinator. A self-proclaimed IT geek on a mission is to improve the quality of eLearning one course at a time.

Additional Authors

Carrie serves as Dean of College Initiatives and Assessment at Wake Tech Community College, providing leadership and direction for faculty, staff, and administrators engaged in college-wide improvement, innovation and strategic initiatives. She has five years of industry experience as a geologist and 23 years of experience in higher education. She currently oversees several projects, including Wake Tech’s current QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan), called EPIC (eLearning Preparedness Initiative Across the College), and is the current project manager for Wake Tech Online. Carrie holds an Associate’s Degree in Physical Sciences from Orange County Community College in Middletown, NY, a Bachelor of Science from Pennsylvania State University, and a Master’s degree from Rice University. She is currently a doctoral student in the Adult and Community College Education program at North Carolina State University.

Extended Abstract

Beginning with an open-door policy after World War II, and expanding to accommodate baby boomers in the twentieth century, community colleges are now one of the main pipelines for upward mobility of minority, low-income and adult learners as the economy has changed and education requirements have shifted from a high school to a college educated workforce (Wyner, 2014).   Community college students who complete associates degrees and certificates, and those who transfer to 4-year institutions to complete bachelor’s degrees, experience a significant increase in labor market earnings compared to students who take some community college courses but do not complete credentials (Belfield and Bailey, 2017).  Because they typically juggle family, work and transportation issues, online learning provides community college students with a flexible pathway to the labor market or transfer to 4-year universities.   Further, recent studies indicate that community college students who begin taking online courses early in their college careers complete associates degrees at higher rates than students who do not take online courses, even though they have characteristics that indicate they are not more academically prepared, and even less academically prepared and less likely to graduate than students who did not take online courses (Shea & Bidjerano, 2014). 

Wake Technical Community College provides online access to 14 online degree programs, 3 online diplomas, and 76 online certificates.  Over 16,300 students took at least one online course in 2016-2017, making the online environment Wake Technical Community College’s largest “campus” and the largest online learning provider among community colleges in North Carolina.  There were 7,111 students who took only online courses, representing a 12 percent increase from the previous year and 47% percent growth over five years (Wake Technical Community College, 2017).  This enrollment expansion mirrors national trends for community colleges, but so do course statistics for students: Average student success rates—percentage of grades A, B, and C among all grades, including withdrawals—for all online course sections are lower than success rates for face-to-face course sections.  Success rates of online sections of the highest enrollment gateway courses are the lowest—at least 8 to 10 percent lower, on average, than the face-to-face sections of the same course.  Further although demand for online learning is increasing, capacity of our online offerings is limited by infrastructure, availability of qualified instructors, and ability to support students online.  A successful solution would increase access, quality and success in online courses and programs by designing a more efficient and effective way of teaching and learning in the online environment that encompasses a more holistic approach to teaching, learning and support focused on the student experience.

In support of Wake Tech’s commitment to manage change through participatory decision making, in Fall 2015 an RFP (request for proposals) invited the entire college community to transform Wake Tech’s online learning environment.  As a result of this solicitation, 18 Phase I concept proposals were submitted and four were selected as most representative of the breadth and scope intended for the online Campus, from which two main ideas emerged:

1. Instructional Team Model:  A need for a more efficient and effective way of teaching and learning in the online environment, moving away from a one-to-many model of teaching and learning, with limited exchange with one instructor teaching to many students, to a many-to-many model of teaching with several instructors and support team members creating an active, vibrant learning experience.


2. Holistic Approach Focused on Student Experience: A need for a holistic approach to an online campus experience that includes all components common to a college campus but distinct from the brick-and-mortar approach. This distinction is an important one; it recognizes that the brick-and-mortar college experience has evolved to meet the needs of a physical student presence but not necessarily that of a virtual one and replicating the same service model in an online environment does not necessarily translate to effective service or learning for the student (Scott and Cole, 2016).


 Cross-functional teams of faculty and staff were convened in Fall 2017 and charged with designing the new model for the online campus.  Specific aims of this Phase II project were to increase capacity for online enrollment, improve the student experience, and increase student success in courses and programs.   Rather than embarking on a typical, lengthy planning process to develop and deploy the model at scale, the college decided to embark on a design approach based on improvement science that would accelerate our learning by rapidly prototyping and testing ideas, and thus,  result in a more effective product when implemented at scale (Byrk, et.Al., 2016).

In preparation for their work, the teams were provided with training in design thinking, but they also needed a concrete, structured design process and tools.  For this we turned to 90-day cycles developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Park and Takahashi, 2013).  A 90-day cycle is a disciplined and systematic approach to developing and testing ideas, processes or products, which Wake Tech adapted to design online learning innovations.  The design teams learned and used tools for defining and analyzing the problem (such as fishbone diagrams and systems improvement maps) as well as driver diagrams mapping change ideas, and process maps showing the student journey.  They will finish their work in fall 2017, and in spring 2018 the model will be tested in two existing online certificate programs using a PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) testing approach (Byrk, et.Al., 2016).

During the session, participants will learn about 90-day cycles, PDSA cycles, how they were used to design a new model for our online campus, and what we learned by using this approach.    Participants will take away tools they can use for any innovation projects on their campuses.



 Belfield, C., & Bailey, T. (2017). The Labor Market Returns to Sub- Baccalaureate College: A Review (CAPSEE Working Paper).  Retrieved from Teachers College, Columbia University, Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment website:

Byrk, A.S., Gomez, L.M., Grunow, A, LeMahieu, P.G. (2016). Learning to Improve:  How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Harvard Education Press.

Park, S. & Takahashi, S. (2013).  90-Day Cycle Handbook. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  Retrieved from

Scott, T. and Cole, T. (2016).  Leveraging Interconnectivity to Advance Learning [Internal Report].  Wake Technical Community College.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2014). Does online learning impede degree completion? A national study of community college students.  Computers & Education, 75,103-111. doi://

Wake Technical Community College. (2017). Wake Tech Online Quick Facts 2016-2017 [Scorecard].  Retrieved from



Wyner, J. S. & Harvard University, Graduate School of Education. (2014). What excellent community colleges do: Preparing all students for success. Harvard Education Press.