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Teaching and Learning Centers as Lean Startups


IDEA Staff

This piece is for folks in the profession of improving learning in higher education. More precisely, it’s for folks who have to do “more with less” and are always hustling, always innovating, in the midst of increasing uncertainty. If you’ve got the work of improving teaching and learning in higher education all figured out or have no desire to try to iterate and innovate… move along, move along, nothing to see here.

With that out of the way, let’s start with some questions: What’s your most pressing problem? How are you solving it now? Pause for a second to really ponder this one. I’ll wait… Ok, so:

  • Why did you pick this problem? Is it the biggest one? Longest unsolved? Keeps popping up (whack-a-mole)?
  • How are you solving it now? Is it working (probably not if it’s your most pressing)? What steps have you done to make sure you’re tackling the problem the right way?

It’s asking these questions - thinking like this - that reveals the benefits of viewing our work like a Lean Startup. At its core any organization be it a business, an academic department, or a teaching and learning center is operating like a Lean Startup when work is approached in ways that maximize output while also minimizing the use of resources (particularly human resources like skill, passion and time). A mindset of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” becomes “what we’re doing didn’t fix it - so let’s break it”. It’s a mindset geared to figure out why the things we do aren’t getting the job done and then make targeted changes to try again, to get closer to getting it right the next time. Most of all it’s a mindset bent on valuing learning over doing.

It’s somewhat ironic that people ostensibly trained in the scientific method and processes of inquiry often tend to be the least likely to apply these skills to the work and business of higher education. Along the road to becoming a professional academician we usually become familiar with creating a hypotheses, devising ways to test them, analyzing the results and then iterating on what we’ve learned for the next hypothesis and test. We build, measure, learn, repeat. But when it comes to systematically creating methods and programs for helping faculty improve their craft, to improving student learning, we tend to “ready, fire, aim”. In other words, we tend to fall in love with our solution as opposed to learning to love the problem.

Why link lean thinking specifically to teaching and learning centers (TLC)? Doesn’t this apply to any organization or any part of higher education? I’m glad you asked. Yes, any “intrapranuer” - someone who adopts entrepreneurial practices and thinking for their piece of the larger higher education puzzle can apply what we’re talking about here. IDEA’s mission is to improve learning and faculty our primary area of focus. We help them take data and turn that into action to directly improve student learning in their classroom. For the past couple years we have been trying to get off the “ready-fire-aim” merry-go-round and think, if not more scientifically then at least strategically and critically, about how and why we do what we do. How does thinking lean impact the realm of educational development (aka faculty development)? We’re asking ourselves how can we better validate our learning experiments? How do we tease out the riskiest assumptions we’re making about our solutions? How do we devise metrics to measure how good we’re getting at solving the problems we’re trying to address? What tools can we borrow from the startup world that fit the higher education context? But most of all - how do we shift our mindset away from loving the solution? It’d be great to expand the conversation to any/all areas of higher education but for this series, we’ll focus on the TLC. We can save the larger topic of lean in higher education for another day.

In higher education, generally, and in faculty development, specifically, what we’re really talking about are intentional tools to get good at listening to the people we serve. We have to consistently ask targeted questions of faculty and other higher education stakeholders that lead us to build better solutions to the problems they describe. Then to build ways to systematically track what we learn from the process.

While there are numerous sources of inspiration for thinking lean two we pull from regularly are the work of Eric Reis and his book “The Lean Startup” and the larger “ecosystem” built around this book. The other is Ash Maurya and his two books Running Lean and Scaling Lean along with his ecosystem at www.leanstack.com.  I especially love Ash’s phrases “life is too short to build something no one wants” and “fall in love with the problem, not your solution”. Until next time.

Jake Glover, PhD
Senior Education Officer and Director of Client Resources

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