At Eduventures Summit 2015, keynote speaker Dr. Linda Hill told us that innovators who are game changers can’t just close the performance gap — they need to close the opportunity gap. In other words, it’s important to understand where we are now relative to where we think we should be, but effective change management will only come from understanding where we could be.

In the current higher education climate, innovation most commonly relates to better serving a diverse and changing student body and delivering high-quality education at a lower cost. How do higher education leaders create this kind of innovation in an industry that is historically conservative in adopting new methods and ways of thinking? While U.S. higher education has a long history of research and pedagogical innovation, it is has ventured into less familiar areas of innovation out of necessity. These areas include new modes of program delivery, career outcomes, partnerships, and technology, to name a few.

Linda Hill at Eduventures Summit 2015 - Eduventures Wake-Up Call - innovation opportunity gap -12.8.15
Linda Hill speaks about the innovation opportunity gap at Summit

Higher education leaders have learned to monitor and improve key performance metrics, such as net revenue, enrollment numbers, and completion rates. These improvements are mostly incremental and involve managing the business of higher education. It’s rarer to make the leap of closing the opportunity gap by prognosticating what could be if fundamental changes were made to the practice of higher education. Fortunately, more and more institutions are making a commitment to a top-level strategic consideration of the opportunity gap.

For example, at Summit, we heard how Mount Holyoke College completely revamped its curriculum and career connections to create an integrated curriculum-to-career experience for all undergraduates. The faculty led the initiative, and it received strong endorsements from the board and president. The community as a whole felt this was an important strategy for reasserting and evolving the relevance of its liberal arts tradition.

While this example is particular to a women’s liberal arts college, the use of technology and data analytics is an important area of innovation that all of higher education is working through. Technology innovation highlights a fundamental issue that can hamper any innovation: the ability to tolerate and manage risk.

When it comes to the big data and analytics revolution, higher education has been slow to adopt because it hasn’t had the infrastructure, data culture, or in-house expertise. We are now at an inflection point where we see higher education leaders considering how to promote a data culture and actively use analytics to drive improvement across the student lifecycle. To access this avenue of innovation, higher education leaders must understand, negotiate, and work with the technology community. With so much investment flowing into edtech, there are more opportunities than ever to build a strategic data and analytics ecosystem. There is also a great deal of risk in deciding how to build that ecosystem because of the necessity of finding technology partners.

Venture capitalist Roger Novak also joined us at Summit and told us that we are very likely in an edtech bubble. He believes that approximately one-third of existing edtech companies might close their doors in the next few years. The venture capitalists behind these companies are used to such risks and place a lot of bets expecting to win only a few. Higher education leaders, on the other hand, are risk averse. We can hardly blame them, given the resource constraints they face and the importance of their mission. The stakes are high, the resources are limited, and the anxiety about making the right choices can be paralyzing.

Roger Novak at Eduventures Summit 2015 - Eduventures Wake-Up Call - innovation opportunity gap -12.8.15
Roger Novak presents “Follow the Money: Education Technology Innovation” at Summit

As Linda Hill reminded us, though, constraints are a necessary condition of innovation. Innovation without constraint often does not work. To innovate, higher education leaders must recognize the constraints and break through the tendency towards institutional paralysis by negotiating the mismatch in risk tolerance between technology providers and educators.

The bottom line is that you need to accept some risk in order to innovate. This should not be a free-for-all, however; these risks should be articulated and understood by all involved. Build two-way partnerships with outside technology vendors who are willing to collaborate with higher education institutions. As you select vendors and manage your partnerships, ensure that providers adhere to standards and terms of service that mitigate institutional risk.

Building a data and analytics ecosystem and creating a platform for educational intelligence is one example of innovation in higher education. It underpins the deeper notion of your team’s ability to enact other key strategies and close opportunity gaps across your institution.