The world is changing and the rate of change is only going to increase. I believe there are 5 “steps” which we need to take in order to be properly equipped to engage all those in our constituency base. The steps are based on a few shifts we are seeing in the world around us. Some of the shifts are cultural or technological and some are coming from within higher education. All are important, relevant, and worth noting. These shifts are going to happen whether or not we are prepared. In many ways, the shifts have been happening right before our eyes for many years. Let’s open our eyes, take note, and better serve students, ministry leaders, and supporters.
The Five Shifts
For each shift/step I will briefly describe the shift I think is happening, why it has value, and then the step we need to take related to that shift.
#1 – Outcomes
Most recently spurred on by requests from accrediting bodies (which are a result of requests from the Department of Education), the process of institutional assessment is now a non-negotiable component of theological education. This has been met with acceptance and resistance. However, I would simply state that assessment requires us to clearly define our desired outcomes and then evaluate whether or not we are achieving those outcomes – that is a good thing, a great thing! Linda Suskie wrote an article last year in which she said, “Assessment is simply a vital tool to help us make sure we fulfill the crucial promises we make to our students and society.” I completely agree. We are making promises which are the outcomes we say we achieve. Assessment will help us know whether or not we are fulfilling those promises.
The great thing about clearly defining outcomes is that doing so enables immense amounts of creativity. Once outcomes have been clearly defined, we are free to use any method to achieve those outcomes. We start caring more about what we are achieving than how we are achieving it.
Clearly defining outcomes also enables us to evaluate our effectiveness. When reading some of the recent standard changes provided by ATS or other information put out by various accrediting bodies, it seems that those institutions which can adequately prove the effectiveness of their programs will be given much more freedom when it comes to how education is provided.
Get your leadership team, faculty, and board on the same page regarding your institutional promises and outcomes. What is it that you say you do? Define your outcomes, define your evaluation methodology, and be clear. Then commit to creating processes and systems which allow for creativity. Outcomes will enable creativity.
#1 – Modules
“Module” is a word you will often hear during discussions about online education. The idea is that an online course can be divided into modules and that a professor should focus on improving or developing individual modules so that effectiveness can be evaluated on that module before moving to the next one. I know I am generalizing the concept here, but please note that I am simply using broad strokes. The bottom line is that modules are becoming (or have been) a building block or a tool for developing online courses. However, I see this impacting everything we do related to program development, course creation, assessment, and eventually steps 3 – 5 below.
I see immense value in taking a module approach to everything we do related to program development and many institutional processes. There are four reasons for this.
First, by using a module approach we are in essence decreasing “batch sizes” in the program development or course development process. Decreasing batch size is something one would read about when studying manufacturing processes. The idea was laid out very well in the classic book The Goal. Basically, decreasing batch sizes enables quicker and more cost effective manufacturing processes. This is related to the concept of bottlenecks and process time. Let me draw the connection for you. In program or course development we often try to build the entire thing at one time. That takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. We don’t want to let anything out until we have finished the entire thing. By using modules we can build a single component of a program or course, publish it, assess it, and improve it – all while building more modules in the background which take into account the things we have learned by evaluating previous modules. This is a topic which could be a three-hour workshop so maybe I’ll write another post about it sometime. It is related to the concept of Agile Program Development on which I have written and two-part blog series. The general takeaway is that modules enable quicker and more effective program and course development.
Second, modules enable bit-size creativity and testing. If we would like to try something really creative or want to test an idea, a module is a great place to do that. We can build the module, push it out to our audience, and then see how it works. Often we are afraid to be creative because we don’t want to fail. Modules allow us to fail quickly so that we can improve. Failure is an important aspect of innovation.
Third, modules enable continuous improvement. As we develop modules we are always learning more about our effectiveness. That learning is then built into other modules. Modules are a great way to bring the big concept of assessment and outcomes down to a manageable and actionable level.
Fourth, modules enable multi-channel content, the third shift/step. Modules can be purposefully built to fit into many different content channels much more easily than entire courses or programs. If a module is built on the basis of creating content that is multi-channel by nature, it can be shared and repackaged in many ways without incurring significant costs.
Begin thinking about modules versus courses and programs. How would you divide your courses or programs into modules? By weeks? By terms? By subject? By content? Also, begin thinking about Agile Program Development.
#3 – Multi-channel Content
I am a sports fan. I follow sports, enjoy watching them, enjoy playing them, and enjoy reading about them – basically, I like sports. Therefore, I consume a lot of content from ESPN. ESPN is a phenomenal example of the shift we are seeing related to multi-channel content. Everything it does is available in almost any content format or device you can imagine. Want to watch ESPN while on an airplane? Just open up the Watch ESPN app on your “i” device or Android device and connect to the airplane’s WiFi. Want to listen to ESPN Radio? Just open up the ESPN Radio app or go to ESPNradio.com. Missed a radio show or an interview on a specific radio show? Just go to ESPN Podcenter or iTunes. Want to listen to Mike & Mike in the morning but don’t have a radio or your phone? Just watch ESPN2. Basically, all of their content, and even very specific modules of their content, is available in a vast array of channels. They repurpose radio content on their television shows and vice versa. They repurpose website content in mobile apps and websites. The content is developed, packaged, tagged, and organized in ways which enable it to be pushed through any channel.
That is the shift. Content needs to be available in and through multiple channels. This is true in all things from courses, to giving and alumni information, to student services. A Convio study which was published not too long ago revealed that people in Generation Y are extremely multi-channel. In fact, when it came to giving methods, no single channel was used by more than 30% of the population. Every channel has less than 30% of the population using it and many different channels were used by the same individual, something I call channel surfing. An individual isn’t loyal to a single channel, but instead “surfs” to different channels at will.
Limiting content to one channel limits its reach and adoption level. Embracing multi-channel content enables us to reach wider audiences as well as to better serve our constituency base. In addition, embracing the concept enables us to adjust the way we create and organize content which in turn enables repacking and “re-delivery” (the idea that content can be delivered to the same person multiple times if we use different channels). Finally, without embracing multi-channel content, it is impossible to take steps 4 and 5.
Think about the various channels your organization may currently use: Email? Website? Print? Mobile Web? Blog? Social Media? Online courses? Podcast? Make a list of all of them. Then think about how your content is or is not able to be easily packaged and delivered in those formats. Which content can be delivered where? How do you measure the effectiveness of content delivered in those formats?
It is easy to say, “This course or that program or that piece of content cannot be delivered in multiple channels.” I would challenge such a thought process. It may be helpful to start by thinking about how something could be delivered in a different channel. What module of a course could be intentionally developed to be multi-channel?
#4 – Time-shifting
If you have a DVR, a TiVo, a Roku, a Netflix subscription, or are aware of Hulu, you are already very familiar with the concept of time-shifting. We can see this in applications like Read-It-Later, Instapaper, Flipboard, and Pocket as well. The idea is simply shifting the time at which content is consumed. Video-on-demand is one of the fastest growing video delivery mediums/channels. People are demanding the ability to watch and engage with content on their terms and when their schedules allow rather than adhering to a specific broadcasting or publishing schedule. The same is true for educational content. One of the attractions of online courses is simply the fact that a student can participate in the course at whatever time he or she wants. This expectation will filter into all content types, courses, and programs. There is a desire on the part of the student to manage time and interaction in ways that work around his or her individual schedule. This does not mean everything will need to be exclusively done online. It simply means that we must create systems which enable users to shift the time at which they consume our content.
One of the values of embracing this shift is the fact that we will be able to find ways for theological education to be more fully integrated into one’s life and ministry rather than something a student “does” or goes to. It can become ingrained in the student’s unique life rhythm. In addition, embracing the concept of time-shifting may allow us to reach more students, alumni, or supporters in ways never before possible because they could not engage with us on the schedule we provided. Time-shifting enables us to create systems of theological education which are more flexible, efficient, and adaptable. As mentioned, the rate of change is only going to increase, so creating systems and structures which enable time-shifting will enable us to adapt to these changes. Finally, time-shifting is a crucial component of mobility, which is shift #5.
Unfortunately, I think the biggest hurdle here is our pride. We must be willing to let the members of our constituency base decide when they want content rather than forcing them into our predefined structures. This means creating courses and programs which can be accessed at any time and through any channel. A course may need to become an on-campus, on-line, and intensive course all at once. We may no longer be able to create those separations. Our assessment process versus our assumptions will help us determine the value of our educational model. The impact time-shifting is having and will continue to have on theological education is just beginning to take shape. The best step we can make at this point is embracing the concept and beginning to think of processes and structures which enable it.
#5 – Mobility
The best explanation of this shift is written by David Armano in this article. Too often we define “mobility” in the same way we define “mobile” while forgetting the fundamental difference. David succinctly defines the difference in this way, “In short, it’s not about mobile as much as it is about understanding mobility…Mobile itself is the nuts, bolts, and infrastructure, while mobility is the context which determines if it all works together or doesn’t.” Mobility is a concept, an approach, an attitude, a philosophy, while “mobile” is simply an individual outworking of that philosophy. An app is “mobile” but it is not mobility. We can easily jump to the idea of a mobile app or a mobile site, but if we don’t understand or embrace the cultural shifts around the concept of mobility we will set ourselves up for failure.
Mobility, the idea that a person wants to interact in many ways and across many devices, is a very important shift in the culture. Armano states, “Mobility means information, convenience, and social all served up on the go, across a variety of screen sizes and devices.” Understanding this shift equates to understanding human behavioral shifts toward mobility – not understanding mobile as platform or channel.
I see the value of mobility being very similar to the value of time-shifting. They enable one another and benefit from one another. By understanding this behavioral shift we will better understand the reasons for time-shifting and multi-channel content. We will also better understand those we serve and those we will serve in the future. The majority of young adults own smartphones. That is something that should be impacting how we think and develop programs, institutions, people, and content.
I agree with Armano when he advises us to not simply hire a mobile expert or decide to create a mobile version of everything. The first step is to gain institutional buy-in to this concept while developing strategies and structures based on a deep understanding of the cultural shift. What does mobility mean for the ways in which we staff and structure our institutions? What does mobility mean for the future of your programs, professors, systems, and processes? These questions should be considered. Again, Armano states this succinctly when he writes, “Before doubling down on mobile, any business should first ask themselves if they really understand mobility as a behavior and lifestyle, followed by tough questions about the role mobile plays in their business.”
As I said at the beginning of this post, the world is changing and the rate of change is only going to increase. If we understand these shifts, the values related to them, and the steps we may need take, I believe we will be properly equipped to engage all those in our constituency base.
What do you think? Is there something I am missing? Are there components of this post with which you disagree? How would you address these concepts at your institution?