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A Change of Heart About Benchmarking

Posted by on Friday, August 10, 2018 in News.

I should warn at the outset: this post initially appears to have little to do with digital learning or education technology, but do bear with me. It is almost axiomatic that any time a university office or committee is reviewing its processes or considering a new initiative, one of the first steps is a benchmarking study to understand the work of peer universities. Every faculty member knows the routine: create an idea for change and then the words, “Let’s see how our peers are handling this.”

To be honest, these words have often made my eyes roll. Vanderbilt is a unique university (indeed, all universities are unique). Rather than simply replicating what goes on elsewhere, why not let Vanderbilt be Vanderbilt? Why not let invention spring up from our internal conversations, assets and values. I felt as if, too often, what began by promising to bring exciting change simply put into place a solution copied from another university.

However, I’ve started to come around to a different point of view, at least in terms of trying to figure out how we will move forward in the digital education realm. We have a number of questions: What is the best platform for online programs? Should services be centralized? How do we market such courses? With whom do we partner? How do we assure innovation as we move forward, as opposed to repetition? How do we stay current with changes in technology and education?

Digital education and digital literacy questions are unique in the academy. Rather than questions that are relatively stable, digital education is shifting possibilities at a rapid pace. We are now trying to understand how to rethink the brick-and-mortar classroom, as well as how to best utilize the global reach afforded by digital communication. When we begin to think about what steps we want to take as a university (e.g., should we establish something on an online continuing education program?), I do in fact want to talk to other universities about their approach. It’s not so much to find out what stable ideas they have, but more to determine how they adjust to change.

Vanderbilt has the capacity to establish successful digital education programs, but change is so rapid that we constantly need to evolve. Here is where conversations with our peers can be beneficial, especially pertaining to content distribution, reach and expertise. A “benchmarking” study in the past answered the question: “What are our peers doing in common to solve this issue?” Now, the question is: “How does each individual program attempt to adjust to changes in a way that is advantageous to their environment?” Rather than “What do our peers do that we can copy?” the question is “How can their approach to a rapidly changing environment influence our own?”

These are truly exciting times to be in this line of work. And, I think it’s going to take all of us to make these exciting times as productive as possible.