HE needs to follow tech companies’ lead and go ‘agile’

Universities need shorter cycles of learning and credentialing, such as eight-week academic terms and quick, stackable certificates, says Tom Monahan

Tom Monahan's avatar
DeVry University
22 Sep 2021
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This summer marked a decade since the US entrepreneur and software engineer Marc Andreessen famously predicted that “software is eating the world”.

He saw that the digital revolution would leave no aspect of life and work untouched. What he couldn’t predict was the Covid-19 pandemic and how dramatically it would accelerate automation, remote work and other technological changes that are reshaping every industry.

As a result, labour market demand − and the nature of work itself − seems to be changing almost week to week. In response, companies are increasingly turning to “agile” ways of working, an idea that originated in software development a decade before Andreessen made his famous prediction. 

But even as companies become more responsive and time-sensitive in how they hire, allocate and promote workers, the way HE educates and trains people remains stubbornly wedded to long timelines. The notion of degrees that are completed over multiple years and made up of courses that each last 16 weeks seems increasingly out of sync with the realities of work today.

HE needs to take inspiration from the agile approach by moving to shorter cycles of learning and credentials that stack together and create conditions that allow for quicker feedback and improvement. 

Agile thinking began with software developers in the late 1990s, who were finding that their software was often out of touch with market needs even before it was finished. So they revolutionised how they created code − organising around small teams and rapid work cycles to create short “bursts” of innovation. This allowed them to release and refine products iteratively.

From there, the agile revolution in software development has grown into a much broader change to how work gets done. Across enterprise, departments from marketing to HR are increasingly going agile, moving away from top-down planning and finding nimbler ways to meet businesses’ rapidly evolving talent needs.

That approach is also critical for today’s institutions as they prepare learners for lifelong careers. Much like agile working, shorter cycles of learning and credentialing − such as eight-week academic terms and short-term, stackable certificates − do four important things for learners and institutions:

1. They create more entry points and opportunities for learners to pause their education
Four in 10 undergraduates work full-time, and one in four have children or other dependents. Shorter learning cycles provide more choice and flexibility in how they fit their education around their lives. Students can start when they’re ready rather than having to wait for a new semester to begin. And if they need to stop, they can potentially resume their education after a shorter period.

2. They mimic − and therefore prepare students for − the compressed work cycles they will experience in their careers
More and more companies are adopting agile practices to shorten their software development and production cycles. For example, Capital One Europe credited agile with making it possible for the bank to temporarily pivot to a series of short-term priorities at the beginning of the pandemic, rather than having all its teams tied up with a single long-term project.

Companies also increasingly want workers who possess soft skills such as project management, communication and adaptability. Giving students the opportunity to learn and apply such skills on similar timelines to those used by businesses is an essential component of preparing them to enter the workforce.

3. They create shorter paths to valuable, and stackable, credentials
Crucially, this gives people the opportunity to earn more money while they learn. An important benefit of the agile approach in software development is that it produces iterative outputs on shorter timelines rather than culminating in a single overarching outcome. Similarly, stackable credentials can provide less of an all-or-nothing approach than a bachelor’s degree, which requires years of investment before any returns.

Not only do shorter cycles benefit students’ immediate needs, but they can also lead to better workforce outcomes. Shorter certificates and learning cycles give higher education an opportunity to be nimble in designing courses, creating more frequent opportunities to check in with businesses to see which skills they need and value most.

4. They give institutions earlier signals for struggling or disengaged learners
Traditional success measures look at graduation six or even eight years after entry, but we know that learners are most likely to leave HE within their first year. Waiting up to six months for the end of a traditional semester to see whether a student is on track is a missed opportunity.

Shorter-term metrics allow colleges to intervene more quickly, much like the agile software development process that allows developers to detect errors and solicit feedback more regularly than waiting until the end of the traditional development process.

Several colleges have already seen remarkable increases in student success by moving to eight-week terms or “mini-mesters”. Learners in CUNY’s ASAP programme, which uses eight-week terms as part of a strategy to graduate students as quickly as possible, are much more likely to persist and graduate than their peers who are not in the programme.

In addition, five years after switching to shorter terms, Trident Technical College in South Carolina saw its course success rates increase by 12 percentage points, its graduation rates increase by eight percentage points and its withdrawal rates decrease by more than a third.

Building on this success, the national non-profit Achieving the Dream, a network of more than 300 innovative community colleges, recently released a guidebook to help institutions with the planning, strategy and decision-making needed to implement shorter terms.

Of course, adopting eight-week or other short terms is not a silver bullet to automatically make institutions agile. That structure can simply help institutions become more agile thanks to these advantages, but institutions must continuously solicit feedback and consider how they prepare students for the workforce.

In the end, a process like agile is just a tool – it’s how institutions use it that will be the determining factor in whether more learners thrive in their education and, ultimately, in the workforce.

Tom Monahan is president of DeVry University and former CEO of CEB, a global best practice insights and technology company.


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