How one liberal arts school is turning to students to lead on innovation

When several students at Davidson College in North Carolina pitched an idea to design and teach their own course, the small liberal arts school was willing to create a space to test this kind of learning against traditional education. It started with Davidson’s first foray into a process for innovation, one focused in part on soliciting ideas from the unique perspectives of current students and young alumni.

The prompt:  “When you look at your education, what is or was missing and why? What do or did you need Davidson to do differently?” The goal: Help Davidson close the gap between current and future students. At least one of the responses was a bit surprising.

“We had a group of students pitch an idea to run their own course,” explained Kristen Eshleman, Director of Innovation Initiatives. “They wanted to remove the layer of authority and change the power dynamics present in traditional teaching and learning. In many classes, they argued, they simply didn’t feel they were an equal partner in the learning process. They wanted to test a different kind of model.” Kristen explained that the students worked with a faculty member to develop a student-run course. Six students would design their own course and deliver the learning themselves.

Kristen Eshelman
Kristen Eshelman

“They were miserable,” she said of the students, who figured out as much about half-way through the course. “In part, because they realized along the line that the novice-expert relationship is deeply valuable. And they are a lot of ways in which our faculty could do it differently, but to not have them deeply engaged throughout was a bad experience” for the students. “They all capitulated at the end and said, ‘No, we really miss the faculty.’”

Experimentation is about research and development and finding ways to innovate that are practical and useful to the Davidson community. This one was a failure, Kristen said, but they produced good learnings. Some elements of the experience informed later projects “but we would never do something exactly like that again because it proved that the novice/expert relationship is critical to deep learning.”

Building innovation

Going forward, Davidson’s innovation process is focused on finding the adjacent possibles that can address external change pressures and develop good options for the college to exercise in the future. Small liberal arts colleges like Davidson face significant headwinds around changing demographics, rising costs, and technology-enabled competition. We can’t predict the future, but we can become more adaptive by focusing on what Dave Snowden calls “the evolutionary potential of the present.”

“The question we are asking is, how do we create agile feedback loops so that we are able to understand, in near real-time, what our culture needs and then put those innovations into play to see what moves the needle.”

In talking with Kristen about the challenges facing higher ed, she highlighted ways in which this small school is adopting some of the best practices in start-up culture focused on institutional innovation–not something you would expect to see on a picturesque campus of higher education founded in 1837. “Davidson decided to be proactive about change,” Kristen said of the steps toward innovation. But there is no blueprint for innovation. “Each institution has its own complexities and context. Whatever you design for innovation in your context probably won’t map exactly the same way in another context. What Davidson needs out of innovation is not the same as what the community college down the street needs out of innovation.” 

Davidson recognized a potential model for innovation several years into the college’s edX initiative, which began in 2012. For Kristen, edX was an experiment to understand how online learning might help us do things we could not do otherwise. Kristen said that through the process the institution learned that they “had a much greater appetite for risk-taking and failing forward than we realized. With edX, we had to work in a lean style, because we didn’t then and still do not have an online learning team on campus. Our faculty and staff had to find the time and mindset to pull it all together quickly. Being in that startup mode made us realize we can be agile when we need to, and we are pretty good at it.”

Having worked in startups prior to joining Davidson, Kristen was familiar with this way of working. Seeing how the college was able to tackle EdX also made her and others realize the institution’s potential for innovation. “For us, it was a model that just confirmed Davidson is a place that can do R&D really well; it can do startup mentality really well. And if we can get the institution to value an R&D process and formalize it, then we can invite more from our community into it. And that’s basically what we ended up doing.”

One way in which Davidson has tackled this is through an open, transparent, and accountable innovation process called Idea Trek, which takes in ideas from anyone connected to the college. Kristen and a small team first conduct opportunity validations (two-six weeks from submission, depending on the complexity of the idea) and if an idea proceeds to pilot her team works to identify the necessary resources. As part of Davidson’s four-year strategic vision, the ideas that flow through this innovation process are considered in the long-term strategies. At the moment, ideas include everything from adding hydroponic dehumidifiers to a new program in the Publishing Arts, and a request to move Spring Break back a week to align more with other colleges. 

When Kristen and I talked she spoke about Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” and how he explains that most innovation isn’t about moon shots and breakthroughs, but rather you have to innovate along adjacent possibles, or those things in the present which are actually feasible. Kristen explained that the more you explore adjacent possibles, the more new potential futures open up around you. 

When I talk about this same concept I tend to use the term “analogous inspiration.” There is so much out there that can inspire us and push our thinking in new ways. And that’s one of the most effective parts of the design sprint. As people start to present ideas you can see how they’re inspired by sketches and solutions others bring to the table. You can watch as people are inspired by conversations they are having how their ideas adapt and change in real-time. 

Kristen said one of these adjacent possibles for Davidson includes partnering with an outside entity to address a gap identified by alumni and students and offer “immersive, high-impact learning experiences.” She said the college has to look at what is practical and realistic. This idea is currently in pilot. “And that’s what I’m getting at with the adjacent possible. We believe we have a model that addresses a significant pain point for our graduates and are now testing this hypothesis, within our policies and within our constraints.” 

Measuring Innovation

I’m continuously curious about how to measure innovation. So, I asked Kristen how she does this at Davidson and how they harness learnings.

“In the simplest ways, we are tracking the number of ideas and the diversity of voices represented – we’d like to see growth in the number and range of ideas from a broad swath of the college community. Within pilots, we are doing full program evaluations.”

But in general, Kristen has that entrepreneurial attitude about innovation. She’s most interested in accounting for the learnings and not for traditional ROI. This includes debriefs, focus groups, and being aware of serendipitous ideas that originate from each learning. 

Kristen said for higher ed she defines innovation as “an exercise in empathy, with those we are designing for at the center of decision-making.” How perfectly put that is that? Indeed, empathy and innovation do go hand in hand. It’s worth considering a marriage of the two the next time you’re designing a sprint or searching for the next best product.