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Seeding change for equity and access in higher education

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A new state-funded organization is incubating innovation at California public universities and colleges. Its director shares some thoughts in a Q&A about the power of experimentation, iteration, and small-scale change to support student success. 

Since its founding four years ago, the California Education Learning Lab has been an engine for academic innovation. Its awards, totaling nearly $30 million, have enabled faculty in 85 public higher education institutions in California to pursue projects to improve learning outcomes and close equity gaps across the state.

 The challenge that the Lab is tackling is complex: How can it help to inspire major changes in pedagogy — throughout the University of California, California State University and the state’s community college systems — that make higher education more equitable and available to more of the state’s citizens?

Lark Park, director of California Education Learning Lab
Lark Park, director of California Education Learning Lab

In its bid to address these issues, the Lab seeks grant proposals from teams drawn from each segment of the California public higher education systems,  occasionally including a faculty member from a private institution. Successful projects tend to focus on introductory courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines that are offered on all three of the UC, Cal State and community college campuses.

 In October, the Lab held the INSPIRE Convening to spotlight more than a dozen of these projects to improve the student learning experience. They ranged from the high tech — use of open-source learning modules and adoption of formative assessments in lieu of high-stake final exams — to the high touch — humanizing online courses and integrating the liberal arts into undergraduate engineering classes.

 The conference attracted an unusually diverse gathering of some 200 people, bringing together faculty and leaders from each of the higher education segments, as well as representatives from philanthropic organizations and state government. While celebrating the advances made in the different projects, it also examined how to take the most promising innovations, which have yielded strong positive results, to broader implementation. 

 “The projects are now impacting many tens of thousands of students, and we hope to grow those numbers in the next few years,” Lark Park, the Lab’s director, said in her opening remarks about why the Convening was called.  “We are all deeply engaged in this work of advancing student success and so it seemed like a great time to celebrate … some great wins and to see how we can win even bigger.”

 Park, who also is a regent of the University of California, previously served as a senior advisor for higher education, early learning and workforce development issues in the Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.

After attending the October INSPIRE Convening,  Stanford Digital Education communications director Jonathan Rabinovitz followed up with Park about her work at the Lab,  asking five questions via email on what it takes to catalyze  greater equity and access in higher education. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 1.     Some people might say that academic innovation is an oxymoron. What’s distinctive about innovation in this arena? 

Lark Park: Academic innovation isn’t an oxymoron, but it isn’t easy. On the minus side, some would say that academic innovation is neither encouraged nor rewarded, and the culture, structure and lack of market forces make innovating in higher education more difficult. On the plus side, academic innovation doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be effective: oftentimes innovation or change on a small scale will produce results. 

 My own theory is that academic innovation is best achieved through continuous iteration and improvement. It’s not about failing fast per se, but constant tweaking or adjusting of the intervention or the dose, so to speak, based on the response of the individuals. 

2.     What’s the story behind the Lab’s founding? Why did you want to be its director?

LP: Funny you should ask, because part of Learning Lab’s origin story dates back to a meeting on online education that then Governor Brown’s office (which I was a part of) convened, where Candace Thille, who was with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education at the time, gave an influential talk about the intersection between technology and learning and iterative improvement, underscoring how companies such as Netflix and Amazon were using technology to better understand their customers, far beyond what many in higher education knew or sought to learn about its students and how students engaged in the learning process. 

It was an inspiring idea, and we said to ourselves, what if we could better understand how students actually learn? What if we could get teaching practice and technology-use to better align with and inform that understanding? What if we could get faculty to experiment more and use their own positionality, creativity and curiosity to get better outcomes and improve the student learning experience for all types of students? These “what ifs” led to the Learning Lab. Why did I want to lead the Learning Lab? Because human intellectual capital is a precious thing, and developing it is what higher education is about. 

 3.     You’ve funded how many projects to date? How would you describe what’s been accomplished? And how are you evaluating the work? What lessons did you take away from the conference?

LP: We have funded more than 60 projects to date. I’ll be honest — accomplishment and evaluation are hard questions to answer. There are so many dimensions to consider. Did we impact student retention and course completion rates? Did we change the way students think about themselves through increased growth mindset, sense of belonging, self-efficacy? Did we close any gaps for underrepresented students? Did students learn more deeply/did they achieve mastery learning? Did we change the way faculty think about their role in student success, or the way they think about their students? Did faculty practice change, and if so, was it sustained change? Which interventions worked, which didn’t? Which worked for some and not others? 

These are the questions that we’re asking, which were hard questions to begin with, but throw COVID on top of it, and you get a lot of uncertainty. The one thing I do feel like we are accomplishing is that we are building and connecting a cadre of faculty who care deeply about innovation and equity and student success. The INSPIRE Convening confirmed for us that these faculty want to find each other. They want to commune, and they want to engage in this work.

 4.     On at least one grant, a faculty member from a private university, St. Mary’s in Moraga, was included as part of the proposal. How can faculty from Stanford and other private universities be part of your efforts?

LP: One of the requirements of getting funding is to either be or to partner with a California public college or university (UC/CSU/CCC), but it’s easy to just become part of our network. Join the Learning Lab newsletter, come to our events, develop relationships with your counterparts at a UC, CSU or community college, and pitch them on a project. Serve on one of our selection committees, give a talk on an interesting subject that we could host, or just write to us with your ideas.

5.     What’s the next step? Do you foresee trying to fund larger initiatives?

 Currently, we have a Grand Challenge to Build Critical Mass for Data Science that is our next big initiative. We’d like to help California become the undisputed leader in data science undergraduate education. And we are going to help the Governor’s Office launch the Golden State Awards, a $10 million awards program designed to incentivize, celebrate and elevate high-impact innovations created in California. (This is not limited to teaching and learning but must be associated with a public college or university.) 

In broader strokes, “What’s the next step?” is a big question for us. As a state-funded program devoted to innovation in teaching and learning, improving learning outcomes and closing equity gaps, we are asking ourselves, what’s the highest value we could create for California public higher education? As we mature, are we an innovation sustainer, or an innovation generator? One thing we do know is that there are many faculty members in California in a variety of disciplines and at various stages of their careers. My hope is that, at some point, the Learning Lab will be a positive influence in how they teach their students and propel their success.

Published December 21, 2022

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