Blog: Idea Exchange

Technology-mediated transformation: Lessons from the field

Melinda Karp May 26, 2016

Last year, I shared my thoughts about the need to create big, bold change in higher education in order to improve student outcomes. In a blog post and webinar, I encouraged us to think about transforming colleges, rather than merely reforming them. Reflecting on the large body of research evidence showing that small changes tend to lead to short-term but fading improvements in student outcomes, and that pilot programs tend not to move overall completion rates, I argued (as do many others) that a more fundamental redesign is needed. At the time, I previewed research underway examining the transformative change process, and promised to report back on our findings.

Four years into our study of institutional transformation, my colleagues at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and I have learned important lessons about the challenge of this type of change. Although the colleges in our study were focused on using technology to redesign advising and student support, there are lessons to be learned for other types of transformation. There are many parallels between changing how advisors advise and how instructors teach; like advising, transforming pedagogy and instruction requires new structures, behaviors, and norms, and while technology is an important tool, it in and of itself will not lead to such changes.

Big, bold change—what we call transformative change—includes three intersecting pieces, all of which individually have small impacts but together substantially shift students’ experiences and, hopefully outcomes. Structural change refers to reorganizing college structures, for example, shifting course scheduling. Process change reforms how people do their jobs. Attitudinal change refers to shifts in how individuals understand their work, such as when they move from defining student success as success in a single course to success in completing college.

What have we learned from our research? First, although transformation is hard, it’s not impossible. We conducted in-depth research at six colleges and universities (four 2-year and two 4-year); of those, three showed signs of dramatically changing how students were advised and supported.  Second, technology can support or inhibit transformation. All six colleges in our study launched their technology tools, but only three transformed. In some circumstances, technology can actually inhibit transformation; colleges that found their technology tools unreliable or unaligned with stakeholder needs were unable to leverage the technology for broader change.

Third, the three transforming institutions had institutional characteristics that appear to be related to their successful transformation.

  1. Transforming colleges put student success at the center of everything they do. At all three transforming colleges in our sample, stakeholders articulated a clear, well-defined, and shared organizational mission: student success as the responsibility of all members of the organization. While non-transforming colleges also care about student success, they typically view it as a series of discrete functions or interventions, rather than a cross-cutting or organizing principle. Putting student success at the center of decision-making means that transformative efforts are aligned with stakeholders’ daily activities, worldviews, and orientations towards their work, which makes getting buy-in and behavioral change easier.
  2. Transforming colleges have a sense of urgency and a clear vision for change. Stakeholders at transforming colleges view big, bold reform as critical to achieving their institutional goals. Often, these colleges had been trying smaller or discrete reforms for many years, but saw little improvement in completion rates. They were ready for something new. Moreover, these colleges had clear, actionable visions for what their reform would look like in practice. Stakeholders shared with us a unified understanding of the types of structures, behaviors, and attitudes that would need to change in order to successfully create meaningful change in student experience and outcomes. Such clarity enabled college personnel to understand what was expected of them as a result of the reform, and shift accordingly.
  3. Transformation requires multi-tiered, aligned leadership. Leading only from above, or leading only from the middle, does not spur transformation. Instead, transforming institutions in our study took a cross-hierarchical leadership approach, with project-level and institutional-level leaders sharing ownership. Moreover, these leaders were aligned in a vision of reform focused on structural and behavioral, rather than technical, change. This type of leadership was not always present at the outset; in two of the three transforming colleges, multi-tiered alignment happened part-way through the reform effort. But in both of these colleges, transformation did not begin until multi-tiered, aligned leadership was in place.

Although transformative change is not easy, the fact that it is bigger and bolder than traditional initiative-oriented reforms means it has the power to create bigger, bolder shifts in student experiences and outcomes.  Our findings hopefully provide insight into how to make such change happen in a wide array of institutional arenas.

Additional information about our iPASS research and transformative change framework can be found on our website: