Applying Design Thinking and Agile Methodologies to Foster Rapid Innovation in Higher Education

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Explore an innovation model and process that have helped Webster University to improve course development, academic advising, student enrollments and student success.


Michael Cottam is Dean and Associate Vice President for Military Campuses and Online Education at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. Webster currently has 50+ extended campuses in the U.S. and serves approximately 4500 online students annually across a variety of graduate and undergraduate programs. He has previously led innovation efforts in online academic program development and course design at Mount St Mary's University, MyCollege Foundation and at Rio Salado College.

Extended Abstract

This presentation will discuss a journey towards an agile innovation model we have developed to address multiple needs at the university, such as expanding enrollments, and improving online student retention and success. We will illustrate the path we took to a dynamic, student-focused, creative and innovative process for sustained, iterative improvement.

Webster University was an early adopter of online learning. Since 1999 the university has had a strong record of quality online graduate programs and support for students. The university's online programs grew quickly in the 2000's and expanded from the business school to education, communications, and arts and sciences. Like many institutions, however, enrollment declines over the past few years have prompted a deeper look into how the university can innovate to be on the forefront of quality online education.

In the summer of 2014, Webster's Online Learning Center began a new approach to innovation that has matured iteratively over the subsequent semesters into a data-centric, responsive, agile process that supports new ideas, new initiatives and new approaches to the online learning experience for students, faculty and staff.

The model we describe includes elements of Design Thinking and the Agile model of project management. Each of these approaches to innovation has been most commonly applied to product design and software development, though in recent years they have been more widely applied to process improvement initiatives across a variety of sectors. In the Online Learning Center at Webster University we adapted Design Thinking and Agile to the context of higher education, online learning design, course development and support.

Each initiative begins with a small, diverse, cross-functional team that decides on the project to be undertaken, determines the parameters for their work and their own measures of success. Teams and projects are supported through frequent, often daily, stand-up meetings to examine data, coordinate efforts, track progress, and remove impediments to success. There is a bias towards action, putting prototypes in the hands of the people who will be using the process and products we create, and then evaluating and improving their performance in short innovation cycles.

This flexible model has been applied to a variety of initiatives including online course development, website and social media improvements, student enrollment generation, academic advising processes, and student retention and success. Over a short period of time, and few iterations, this approach has resulted in measurable improvements in every area of operations it has been implemented. For example, in the student retention projects with a subset of Webster's online programs, participation in online student orientation increased by 50%, and retention improved by over 3% in the first term. Likewise, enrollment has increased by approximately 3% since project interventions began.

This presentation will include an explanation of the process, along with examples of lessons learned along the way. During the question and answer period we will take a few audience suggestions of problems and projects and outline how the innovation model we use might be applied to each one.