In 2019, the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) reorganized from two schools divided by undergraduate and graduate into three schools based on disciplinary alignment. As a result of this change, the university needed a new model for academic assessment and planning that could support the needs of all three schools.
The university had a long history of providing access to a variety of data through dashboards in the University data warehouse. The challenge was being able to find actionable data that could be used by faculty and administrators to assess program quality and identify opportunities for improvement. From our success in this area, UMGC gave birth to the analytics company Helio Campus, who still maintains the university’s analytics infrastructure.
The new assessment process built on this existing data infrastructure to include data on enrollment, graduation, and other student success metrics. We then added the assessment of student learning against program learning goals to this new process. And to provide a more comprehensive lens into performance, we pulled in external data to allow comparisons to other institutions and labor market data related to careers targeted by programs.
Access to data is only the first step in the planning process. The heart of the process is how data are used in decision making and to guide actions. To elevate our assessment and planning process, we needed to do two things:
- Implement a structured approach for decision making (agile wayfinding).
- Integrate this decision making progress with already existing ones at the university.
By 2019, UMGC had transitioned its project management approach to an agile model. Organically, it made sense for academic planning to follow this approach as well. The traditional waterfall model of project management is a very structured, sequential model that often is not responsive to new data and lessons learned during the process. Agile approaches, in contrast, are built to adjust as we learn from doing. As my former supervisor Tracey (then President at Western International University) says, “we will know more tomorrow than we do today.”
Agile is not an excuse to not have structure. Rather it offers a structure that builds in change and flexibility into the process. Planning should be centered on action-oriented decision making if it is to be effective. Air Force Colonel John Boyd observed that decision making involves a loop of Observe–Orient–Decide–Act (OODA). Boyd initially developed this to explain his own process in aerial dog fights, and he used it to train other pilots. In time its use expanded to other military applications and then beyond the military. OODA provides the methodological core to Agile Wayfinding.
Making decisions in a vacuum is not helpful. It is essential to know what are the intended outcomes or the purpose of decision making. As English author, poet and mathematician Lewis Caroll said, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Before we can start making decisions, we need to know where we are going. We also need to know when we have arrived at our destination.
I have ten children, and over the last 20 years, I have seen every Disney movie multiple times. One of those movies is Moana. In Moana, one of the themes is about navigation, or wayfinding. How do you find your way across an ocean with no landmarks or signs? In the movie, the demigod Maui explains to Moana:
“It's called ‘wayfinding’, princess, and it's not just sails and knots, it's seeing where you're going in your mind. Knowing where you are by knowing where you've been.”
Applying Agile Wayfinding in Higher Education
Once we define our purpose (where we are going), we can start to make decisions about what is the best action to take right now to get us closer to our destination. We can also then evaluate whether we have reached our destination. Agile Wayfinding starts with Purpose, includes a cycle of Observation, Modeling, Decision, Action, and finally Destination. I have also written about how this approach can be used for personal productivity.
For UMGC’s academic programs, this model looks like this:
Step 1 - Purpose: What are our learning goals and student success indicators? What is our destination?
Step 2 - Observe: What do we know about current processes and their effectiveness? What are the current data that we have?
Step 3 - Model: Based on the data and what we know about the context for those data, what actions could we take to move us closer to our destination?
Step 4 - Decide: What are the actions we should take first? Rarely can we do everything all at once, so what is the most important thing to do right now?
Step 5 - Act: Implement the action to be taken.
Step 6 - Destination: Are we there yet? If yes, how will we celebrate our achievement? If not, what have we learned so far that will inform our next journey through the cycle?
After Step 6, we will cycle back to a previous step in the cycle. If our Purpose and Destination are the same, then we will want to start again at Step 2 with new data and lessons learned. However, sometimes we will realize that we need a change in Purpose, and we will need to restart at Step 1.
UMGC Integrated Planning Calendar
As we designed this planning process, we identified multiple existing processes that need to be integrated with this process.
- Annual Budget Process: The University fiscal year starts July 1, and budget requests are usually needed four months in advance. As action plans require financial resources, these need to be identified in time to support budget planning.
- Curriculum Governance: Some actions need to be captured in the University catalog. Some changes may require regulatory approvals. Both of these operate on a defined cadence and schedule, and the planning process needs to align to those deadlines.
- Course Development and Revision: UMGC uses a central course template for each class. There are deadlines for any changes for each semester. In order to be enacted, changes must take place before these deadlines or changes will be delayed.
To make the Agile Wayfinding process work, steps are aligned to the deadlines of these other processes. Data are collected throughout the academic year (July - June). Analysis of that data and reporting takes place July - September. This allows analysis of the data to occur in October - February in time to allow actions to meet the deadlines for budget, curriculum governance, and course design.
Conclusion: How can you implement this at your institution?
The Holy Grail of assessment is “closing the loop.” This occurs when assessment results lead to changes that produce measurable impacts on student outcomes. The Agile Wayfinding process provides a structure to close the loop by aligning data, decision making, and actions in a recurring cycle.
To implement this at your own institution, here are five practical steps:
- Start with Purpose. What is the purpose of the integrated planning process you are seeking to build? What will success look like?
- Identify what are existing processes and deadlines that need to be integrated into this process.
- Look at existing resources in data and information systems to support this work.
- Design a plan to fill gaps in your infrastructure.
- Put your process into action and learn from what works and what can be better.
Taking the time to understand where you are and where you headed, enables you to see things that you may have overlooked previously. This is time well spent, because it will help you design a plan for sustainability that is practical and inclusive of the stakeholders who are involved in upholding the mission and vision of your institution.
Want to learn more about UMGC's integrated planning process? Check out their webinar replay on data-driven integrated strategic planning with The University of Southern Mississippi!