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Examining AAU's Role

In collaboration with Adrianna Kezar, Professor Rossier School of Education and Co-Director, Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, AAU examined how a national higher education association can in fact encourage and help create educational change at its member institutions.  

The National Science Foundation study, “Scaling Undergraduate STEM Education Reforms at AAU Institutions,” used the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative as a real-time, field-based innovation to examine the unique role AAU can play as compared to any other organization nationally to achieve scale of evidence based teaching practices. The overarching objective is to determine how the AAU STEM Initiative achieves scale of reforming undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. The study also examined the distributed leadership role of AAU and its influence as a result of being a highly-esteemed organization in higher education.

The study involved document analysis, observations, and interviews. In total, over 10,000 pages of documents were reviewed to understand the Initiative and observations were conducted over two and half years. Four groups were interviewed: 1) AAU STEM Initiative key leaders and personnel; 2) faculty members and administrators at the AAU STEM Project Sites; 3) faculty members and administrators active in the AAU STEM Network; and 4) collaborators from outside organizations that have worked with AAU on the Initiative. In total, the study included 104 interviews. The following key themes emerged from the study:

  1. AAU STEM Initiative key leaders and personnel;
  2. Faculty members and administrators at the AAU STEM Project Sites;
  3. Faculty members and administrators active in the AAU STEM Network; and
  4. Collaborators from outside organizations that have worked with AAU on the Initiative.

In total, the study included 104 interviews. The following key themes emerged from the study:

Assess your strengths and assets as an organization. One of the most important lessons derived from this study is the importance of organizations engaged in change processes to start by assessing their strengths to help devise the best and most strategic approach. For AAU, these strengths included their ability: a) to influence leaders such as president and provosts and other prestigious and influential organizations within the higher education sector; b) to create and leverage networks; c) to define overarching logics or value systems for the enterprise; and d) to work across various key stakeholders of the higher education system.

Use a systems approach to scale change. Every organization is able to work at different levels of a system. Some organizations are well-positioned to help with creating change at a specific level of a system, while some organizations can work across multiple parts of the system. Research has shown that more levels of the systems that are impacted, the more likely changes are to scale and be sustained.

AAU was an organization that could work at multiple levels and utilized this capability. One of the beneficial outcomes of the AAU initiative was thinking about aligning different efforts within the overall landscape of improving undergraduate STEM education. Organizations should establish where they can work best within the overall system and strategically apply their efforts.

Use multiple change theories for maximum impact. In projects that involve multiple stakeholders and complex motivations and issues, using multiple theories of action to scale change can be extremely valuable. Leaders in AAU adopted a multi theory approach to the change process that benefited their trajectory forward and efficacy.

It is all too common for change efforts to adopt a more simplistic approach to change and AAU’s deployment of various theories of action increased their chances of success. Embedding strategies which can be used in multi-faceted ways as AAU did is also a very efficient way to use time and resources, finite factors that are generally in low supply.

Understand and consider influence strategies. Influence is generally an implicit strategy and not one that organizations conduct strategic planning around - even though it is an important lever for change.  This study was able to provide concrete descriptions for what influence can look like within higher education setting. AAU’s most important change strategy was deploying its influence as a prestige organization to garner the attention of leaders and to motivate change. Every organization has the ability to influence some set up of groups of individuals and consideration of the most effective influence strategies is particularly important for a strategic approach.

Carefully evaluate framing, messaging, and language used to communicate change. While there is a great deal of attention to language as it relates to visions articulated in change processes at the single institutional level, the process of articulating new “institutional logics” that guide more macro change processes have not been articulated in the higher education change literature. Just as individual institutions must carefully craft a vision around change for institutional strategic planning processes, scaling efforts must also articulate a “common agenda” and even more importantly a compelling new set of logics to undergird institutional action across the sector.

AAU successfully created a strong message that “AAU institutions need to be as excellent in teaching as they are in research,” which was a very compelling message to stakeholders. Organizations attempting to scale change should very carefully evaluate the logics they are developing and the language used articulate the new logic.

Use networks to scale change. Organizations often organically allow networks to develop and may not intentionally plan how networks can be used and connected to scale change. AAU strategically considered and developed networks. Organizations can use the lessons from this study to help define and implement networks for scaling change.

Create distributed leadership for improving STEM education. The literature on scale suggests that leadership throughout the system is critical for scaling changes. Distributed leadership draws on leadership throughout the system and does not make distinctions between leaders in formal positions of authority versus informal leaders in terms of their value and importance for creating change.

Leaders at different levels have insights into particular issues related to the change content as well as process. AAU partially played this role through its conveying power in that it brought together leadership from across the system. Reform efforts would benefit from an organization facilitating the development of leaders at these multiple levels in support of improving undergraduate STEM education.