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Solving the Wicked Problem in Higher Ed: Collaboratory for Innovation

Instead of trying new ways to refinance education, the industry needs to become more agile and less bloated.

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

Administrators, university presidents, professors, student council members, head of accreditation institutes, policy makers

It's 9 in the morning and the room is full of voices. It's the first day of a weekend retreat of administrators, university presidents, professors, student council members, head of accreditation institutes, and policy makers. They met up to make plans of how to re-structure universities and the higher education market. The rising tuition costs are only one sign that the industry has huge problems. Rising university debt, drop-out rates, unqualified graduates are all signs that universities need to rethink their business model.

The aim is to address the wicked problem in higher education. Rob Han (contributor in this challenge) describes this wicked problem perfectly as

"It's not like fixing one cog inside a big machine. Education, in my opinion, is just a huge interconnected network where many things may need to be altered concurrently in order for some positive change to happen."

The idea we propose relates to how education is tacking care of in the US. It goes beyond the high tuition costs. The business model of universities hasn't changed much for the past 200 years. No other industry is so bloated and still surviving (see book from Kevin Carey from the New America Foundation). The higher education industry is confronted with a wicked problem that can only be solved when stakeholders collaborate with each other. 

In the past, one elite university has adopted a new structure (e.g. Harvard) and other's have followed suite, in the belief that top universities will implement best practices. We propose to create a Collaboratory for Innovation, a platform through which stakeholders can discuss to create not only the university of the future, but also processes to accredit and evaluate innovative teaching methods. 

This Collaboratory will be blended, as great collaboration begins face-to-face. Over a weekend stakeholders will meet to discuss the problems. During this meeting, no solution are allowed to be offered. Experts spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the problem. Teams should do the same. After this face-to-face meeting, diverse subgroups dig deeper into one problem area, always trying to stay away from developing solutions. After 6 months, another face-to-face meeting will be planned, bringing together all the gathered information. From then on we plan for a solution.

This is a long-term solution, not something that will help students next year. But we can't keep on offering short-term solution created through single-loop learning.  This goal of this idea is to rethink what education is and how it should be offered. Your kids will profit from it.  

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

The team's current research has shown that some people start to think about education differently. New type of educational institutes have emerged in the US and world wide. We have not yet reached the tipping point, but this idea could bring us closer to a radical change in the industry.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Guidance in facilitating discussion between different stakeholders. A secure and easy to use platform to share ideas, collect resources, brainstorm, doodle, do video conferences. The success of the idea depends on keeping the momentum going, keeping the discussion alive. We would also make use of the resources offered by group as a way to train individuals to collaborate with different stakeholders.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes


Join the conversation:

Photo of Andrew Ciszczon

Great systems thinking approach! Any idea that focuses on the finances alone will fall short of a much larger opportunity. My idea is similar in spirit with the biggest question being, especially with your idea, how do you get the parties who have the most to gain from maintaining the status quo to buy in and challenge it? 

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Very interesting question Andrew Ciszczon I think that for every stakeholder group, some people will like change and others not. The key is to identify the change-maker in each group and collaborate with them. Of course this does not guarantee success. I would expect that these kinds of ideas are slow moving, with pockets of change happening. I will also expect that some of the big and established people and universities will not want to participate. Who I would select from the faculty side? Someone who kickstarted edX 
I will expect some big and established universities to not participate. 

Photo of Alexandra Alden

Hi Katerina! Alex here from the Path to Pitching, cool idea! Have you done any low-fidelity prototyping yet? Maybe you could set up a Slack and facilitate discussions between stakeholders? Could this have a revenue model? What could it be? If you're interested in pitching to the accelerators you will need to get out there soon and start getting feedback on your idea as problem/customer validation is important. Our milestones are a great roadmap of what you'll need to be pitch ready: 

Photo of Joel Gingery

Very nice ideas!  I especially liked reverse engineering and so called 'wicked' problems.  Albeit concerning k-12 reform, here is a link to a review article from the OECD about educational system reform that may be helpful.,%20Complicated,%20and%20the%20Complex.pdf

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Thanks for your comment Joel Gingery and the resource you offered

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi again, Katerina,
In thinking about the process of approaching 'wicked' problems, holding a face-to-face collaborative meeting of stakeholders, I'm wondering what you might think of a virtual collaborative meeting of various people connected with your project who would play the role of one (or more) of the stakeholders in order to get a feel for the process and the situation from many different angles?

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Hello Joel Gingery . I like the idea of people playing different stakeholders to get a better understanding of their point of view. But I would rather do it face-to-face (or at least start it F2F), especially at the beginning. Playing someone else isn't that easy. You don't want to misrepresent them and just play stereotypes. In F2F creating safety and a sense of community is easier. I have been collaborating online for the past 5 years and whenever we have the chance to meet in person, we do it. 

Photo of Kaye Han

Katerina, I like your perspective on spending a lot more time framing the problem before jumping quickly to solutions. That's definitely the right way to go. That being said, I also believe in emergent systems, which is that the problems with a system cannot be isolated, tweaked, and have a complete ripple effect. It's not like fixing one cog inside a big machine. Education, in my opinion, is just a huge interconnected network where many things may need to be altered concurrently in order for some positive change to happen. That positive change may not be able to be attributed to one solution, but a variety in coordinated conjunction. Kind of like how poverty has bad affects on the outcome of lives, but it's hard to attribute a single cause/problem/solution.

I don't have any actionable feedback on your idea, but thought I'd share my thoughts. But I definitely agree that spending more time on understanding the problem is important! :)

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Rob Han Thanks for your feedback. You describe perfectly what a wicked problem is ("It's not like fixing one cog inside a big machine. Education, in my opinion, is just a huge interconnected network where many things may need to be altered concurrently in order for some positive change to happen".) I'll make that clear in the description. 

Photo of Denny Wong

Thank you for the posting - in capturing or presenting the challenges of the education system that are 'bloated' and the need to (re)make it 'agile' again.

We have a few options:
1). Rework or change existing system (ie. reform, reorganised, etc).
2). Let natural selection work  (ie. let the existing system that do not want to change - fail while encouraging new one to thrive).
3). Tabula rasa (ie. phase out the none working institutions and redirect the resources to new organisation).
4). Turbo charged the sector by encouraging diverse new schools to start and let the 'best' model bubble up - either through private or public funding - ie. examples cited here:
5). Others...

Either way by changing the existing or do a 'tabula rasa' - to rebuild a new one  either by using the different remaining elements of the existing system (retrain) or create a complete new model (lean).

This exchange make me think of this post:

Photo of Joel Gingery

Hi, Rob,
Please pardon me for putting by two cents in but I wanted to let you know that there are several examples of whole system educational reform albeit of K-12 systems that seem to be very successful  and might help in reforming college:  Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai  (Jensen, B., et. al., Catching Up:  Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia.  Grattan Institute Report No. 2012-3)  and Ontario, Canada. (Fullan, M., "Large scale reform comes of age," 2009, Journal of Educational Change. Vol.10, pp. 101-13 and Fullan, M. and Levin, B. 2009, "The fundamentals of whole-system reform.  A case study from Canada,"  Education Week, Vol 28, No. 35, pp. 30-31.).   The experience in Ontario is a nice substantiation of the "invest in faculty" idea you cited.

Photo of Denny Wong

Hi Joel - thank you for sharing the different examples. I also visited your blog, like the complicated (ie. send a rocket to moon) versus complex (ie. raising a child) comparison. Interesting.

I think it is fair to say that the education system has grown to become a complicated system setup to solve a complex problem. Our challenge is to (re)make the system - so it is simple again - a simple solution to a complex problem. 

Secondly, I would 'moderate' the ranking result of system based on measuring science and math result of students (ie. although the PISA test is measuring thematics include : Mathematics, Reading, Science, Problem solving and Financial literacy (ie.

In my opinion the first 3 (Mathematics, Reading, Science) are crucial skills or tools but without the problem solving, collaborative, communication and self awareness skills - the first three skills might not be sufficient to solve real-world problem.

This is where I believe the tertiary education need to 'educate' our students beside going into each specialisation (ie. engineering, pure science, etc).