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Can Colleges and Universities Learn Too?

Professor Richard Light remembers how the initial idea for his latest project, the Forum on Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education, got started. He was having breakfast one morning with the president of the Spencer Foundation, Michael McPherson. McPherson, then new at the job, had a question for Light: What one idea in higher education is worth our funding?

Light knew immediately and used an example to explain his idea. What if a college hired a new biology professor who had lots of groundbreaking theories, he said, and taught her students in a totally innovative way? What if, in no time, enrollment in biology courses shot up and another university lured her away? Once she left, would the first university’s biology department capitalize on her great ideas and continue to use them, Light wondered, or would it go back to its old way of operating?

Unfortunately, McPherson said, it would probably go back to its old ways. “Colleges and universities are not good learning organizations,†he said.

“Let’s figure out how to make them better,†Light said. Armed with a million-dollar grant from McPherson’s foundation — one of the biggest that the foundation had given at that time — Light started his project, which is now in its third year and includes 14 colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard.

The idea behind the Forum on Excellence project is simple, Light says. “Every school was invited to come up with two new innovative ideas that would benefit students. The goal is to figure out how to take an innovation that is working well and embed it into the campus.â€

At the first daylong meeting, the teams presented their ideas, got feedback from people at other schools who may have tried similar projects, and explained how they’d define “success†with the new projects. Georgetown, for instance, in an effort to better connect study-abroad experiences with on-campus learning, is looking into blogging software that allows students to create journals, study-abroad cross talk, and “dispatches†from the field. The University of California, Merced, is starting a for-credit undergraduate research journal that will be published as an e-zine. One of Harvard’s projects involves trying out new ways to help scholarship students from low-income families thrive without stigmatizing them.

This past November, when the groups met for the third time, they discussed whether each project was actually working and what evidence supported this. Light says he’s confident that once the five-year forum project officially ends in 2009, each school will show noticeable benefits from participating. Beyond that, he hopes that other schools take notice and try their own innovative ideas.

“The ultimate test will be how many other campuses, beyond the 14 in the forum, adopt the idea of working to become more effective learning organizations,†he says. “When there are new, good ways of doing things, the whole organization benefits. Our goal is not just to encourage campuses, including our own right here at Harvard, to experiment with better ways to teach, and to advise students, and to make sure students are maximally engaged with their college experience; it is also to help each campus develop ways to integrate positive results and good new ideas so that these good new ideas become embedded and part of the fabric of each place.â€

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