The UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ Initiative, From Abstract Concept to Tangible Product

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Within the first hour of my first day as a University Innovation Fellow, I met with my direct supervisor, Luke Tate, and the leader of the UI Office, Jacqueline Smith. I was handed a paper with my initial assignments and explained that these would be ongoing projects. What I didn’t know was that these projects would take months of research, dozens of meetings, and countless reports -- just to scratch the surface.

My first two assignments were:

  1. “Produce a thorough review of the most innovative, interesting and experimental methodologies that universities are employing in engaging non-degree seeking learners, in particular those that lead to direct career gains (advancement or new employment obtained). Work product: landscape analysis

  2. Outline how could a learner currently engage with ASU in a non-degree pathway (to get ahead without getting a degree). What is the scale of these existing programs (number of learners), how do they function, what are their results, and how are they funded?

These projects were created to orient my mind around a new theoretical concept at ASU called the “UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ intiative.” The model was loosely defined as “Evolving a model capable of being of service to all learners, at all stages of work and learning, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, through educational, training, and skill-building opportunities.” UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ programs would challenge the traditional structure of a university. No longer would an institution ask if the learner was ready for the school, it would now ask whether the institution was ready for the learner. We at ASU already knew that we effectively served college-ready, traditional students. However, we wanted to meet the needs of any learner, at any stage of their life. We wanted to provide them with the education and skill-building opportunities that they needed to be successful in every facet of their work or learning. When I came to understand the impact that this notion could have on the trajectory of universities, I became determined to move this concept forward.

Researching the UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ Initiative

But first, I needed to complete my first two assignments. To understand what other universities were deploying, I scoured the web, reviewed dozens of articles, dove deep into recent literature, and signed up for every newsletter that had anything to do with innovations at colleges or universities. I began compiling the most notable innovations in the field and immediately realized how little I truly knew. What was a bootcamp? Is the Carnegie Unit the only measure of academic progress? Why would someone want a badge, and what does it mean to be stackable? Wait, I need to learn about blockchain!? I came to understand that what I learned in my Higher Education Master’s Program was almost irrelevant when it came to the innovations that were on the cutting edge of university structures. I spent hundreds of hours working to understand this field.

While compiling information on the innovations external to ASU, I was asked to gain a better understanding of how ASU was already serving Universal Learners. While one would think this could be accomplished quite easily, the task was more complex than one would hope. ASU is a highly decentralized institution and one of the largest public universities in the country. With over 110,000 students, well over 11,000 employees, and notoriety as the number one university in innovation, identifying new programs that were emerging was a herculean task. I met with every unit I could identify that could have been tangentially related to this project. Over the course of four weeks, I sat down with 44 different administrators to identify what they were doing in this space. After meeting with everyone, I knew that I had barely scratched the surface, but I had to wrap up my findings.

Presentation of Findings

In early September, I sat down with my two supervisors and presented the initial reports that I had prepared. With the help of the UI Research team and several other members of the office, we identified hundreds of non-degree learning opportunities at the institution. I presented in-depth research on fifteen concepts that I believed to be most relevant to the UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ initiative in its current form. I also presented twenty of the most innovative ways that universities were engaging non-degree seeking students, with dozens of institutions listed. Together, this initial research helped solidify some of the thinking around what UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ programs would look like.

The UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ Initiative Gets a Team

Shortly after my conversation with Luke and Jacqueline, I began to have weekly Universal Learning meetings with members of the UI Office who were working on similar projects. The UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ initiative was such an abstract concept that having a team to think through ideas, even if we didn’t have specific deliverables to work on, made the process much easier. Over the next few months, the entire team would be “all hands on deck” whenever a new concept needed to be explored. “What does credit for prior learning look like in different forms?” “What innovations are being explored regarding accreditation?” “How are badges evolving at other institutions, and what value do they possess in their current form?” In the UI Office, you quickly learn that flexibility and fluidity will be your best friends.

Making UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ Initiative Tangible

Our leaders released a second version of the UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ Initiative as 2018 came to a close. This update included recommendations to make UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ programs more tangible. I spent time compiling information on how other institutions were communicating about UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ activities, the UI team and I put together recommendations on how the ASU mobile application could help learners aquire UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ skills, and dozens of ASU leaders were deployed to operationalize projects in their own units. What was once an abstract idea was now being tangibly realized.

What’s Next?

Over the next few months, a working group will be meeting to iterate on these projects and assess how the institution can move forward. As with all innovations, there are bound to be points of contention. We are challenging structures that go back farther than our nation’s founding; to expect blind devotion from the entirety of our academic enterprise would be foolish. Yet, this concept is too important to fail. We have conceptualized something that rethinks how universities interact with learners. As a practitioner in this field, that’s really exciting! I’m eager to advance the UNIVERSAL LEARNING™ framework as my time as a Fellow comes to a close.


Universal Learning Abstract Tangible