Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Friday, April 15, 2016

What is "academic transformation?" (no, really...)

I need your help.

Like some others, I define "academic transformation" as making  gains in selected facets of access, quality and affordability in higher education.
  • Access: How many people can learn? what kinds of people can learn?
  • Quality: What are the outcomes? how effective are the practices aimed at fostering that learning?
  • Affordability: Is a particular type of stakeholder willing and able to invest a particular resource over the long term?  Stakeholders include students, faculty, units such as academic departments and teaching centers, institutions, and benefactors.  Relevant resources include time, money, and facilities.
These three goals have been called an "iron triangle" because of the widespread perception that to make progress in one or two of these goals, one must make sacrifices in another.  For example, if budgets remain constant (affordability), people may assume that all efforts to extend access pose a threat to quality and all efforts to improve quality must be limited to a subset of students, unfairly penalizing other current or potential students.

In practice that triangle can be stretched.  For example, the shift from hand-copied manuscripts to printed books in higher learning enabled gains in certain aspects of all three goals.  More recently the growth of the Internet offers a wider range of more affordable resources to a larger number of learners.  Flipped courses offer potential gains in all three spheres.

A lot of people are talking about this kind of threefold transformation.  I am beginning to study:
  • Who's trying to do it? 
  • How? 
  • How's it going?  
  • Are there lessons to be learned from their experiences about how to conceptualize and implement academic transformation?  
I'm looking for real-world cases of attempted academic transformation.  Can you suggest any efforts that I should study?
  • Perhaps people at an institution are trying to transform a crucial teaching/learning activity such as coaching,  assessment of higher order learning, or capstone courses. 
  • You might know of an effort to energize students, get them to take personal responsibility for assessing their own learning, or to become more resilient so that they can get more value from their academic programs;
  • Perhaps a college or degree program has taken on a form that makes it more effective in all three areas than many of its competitors.  
  • You might recall a particular course with an unusual design that happens to have strengths in all three of these areas. 
  • The work that occurs to you might focus mostly one of the three goals but potentially have benefits in the other two as well.  For example efforts to make education more affordable might potentially have implications for both access and quality.
  • Maybe you know of an effort to make gains on a scale beyond that of single institutions - a new policy, or consortium, or mediating institution helping sustain relationships between distant learners and distant institutions.
  • You might be aware of an effort to help programs judge how well they're doing in one, two or all three of these goal areas.
Whatever the particulars, I'm looking for cases where people are:
  • Making a serious effort to be strong in some aspects of each of these three goal area;
  • Paying attention to what's actually happening in each area, so that the goal doesn't devolve into a marketing tagline ("We're a quality program!!!!"
Notice I'm not insisting on success.  We can learn at least as much from efforts that flopped or withered.  You don't need to have any connection to the instance you're suggesting.  Just point me in the right direction and I'll take it from there.

Please email your suggestions to ehrmannsteve at


  1. Steve, you might want to follow the work of the Accelerating Systemic Change Network, . This isn't about the nature of academic transformation as much as how we go about it - but as you will know there is a pretty strong relationship between these two topics :)