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Open Access Online Course Launches for Higher Ed Faculty, Staff, Leaders


Portland State UniversityPortland State UniversityOn Monday, the Association of Public and Land-grant universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) launched an online, open access course for higher education faculty, staff, and leaders to learn principles of “institutional transformation” that can foster equitable student success.

“What we are trying to do with this course is think through what student experience holistically looks like at a university. From the moment students first walk onto the campus, do they feel like they belong?” said Andréa Rodriguez, director at USU and APLU’s Office of Urban Initiatives and the staff lead for this project. “We also know that higher education often functions in silos, but this course is about bringing institutions together.”

The APLU is an advocacy, research, and policy organization focused on advancing public and land-grant research universities. USU, which partners with APLU, is a president-led organization centered on urban universities.

The open access online course has three modules that cover, according to its description, “laying the groundwork for institutional transformation, the essential elements of institutional transformation, and institutional transformation in practice.” It additionally unpacks concepts like student experience design, communities of practice, and data-informed practices. 

This new course draws from learnings in the case studies of three public urban universities: Florida International University (FIU), Georgia State University-Perimeter College (GSU), and Portland State University (PSU). Through a project called the Frontier Set, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded, the FIU, GSU, and PSU case studies looked at different kinds of institutional transformation over six years—and what worked as well as what didn’t during such shifts.

The FIU case unpacked how that institution transitioned to a state performance-based funding model while still defining its own goals around social mobility and access. The GSU case study detailed lessons from Georgia State University merging with Georgia Perimeter College in 2016. And PSU’s study centered on how the institution navigated leadership turnover with such ongoing student success initiatives as Students First.

Among Students First’s strategies at PSU was building a “Persistence Network,” or where staff and faculty proactively identify students who may be facing challenges to connect them to campus resources.

“It’s a reality in higher education that presidential terms are generally getting shorter, and we can no longer wait for a president to set a university’s strategy over multiple years,” said Christina Williams, a spokesperson for PSU. “So, the idea is that an initiative like Students First can do that long-term planning and build networks across the university, from academic affairs to the budget office to folks in enrollment. It’s important to have that overarching goal—a laser focus on making sure students are successful—and getting a cross-university team together behind that goal.”

While this free course will likely be a critical tool, Dr. Adrianna Kezar, the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California (USC), noted that resources with a greater focus on ways to tackle the day-to-day challenges of student success could be even more beneficial.

“Education is a people-oriented enterprise, but we keep trying to come up with a silver bullet or technical system as a solution—and we’re forgetting about what the core of this whole enterprise is,” said Kezar, referring to the need for student success resources in general. “It’s about students coming together with their peers and faculty, interacting, and hopefully learning. We can’t ignore that people element.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].

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