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The Architecture of Innovation: System-Level Course Redesign in Tennessee

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The Architecture of Innovation: System-Level Course Redesign in Tennessee

December 30, 1899

by Jennifer R. Crandall and Louis Soares

Executive Summary

As higher education grapples with restrained state resources, increased demands for accountability, advances in information technology, and changing student demographics, it continues to examine innovation as a mechanism for addressing its evolving landscape. Course redesign is one such innovation that institutions, systems, and states are turning to in an effort to improve undergraduate education for today’s college students.

For Tennessee, one goal has been to increase education attainment levels to bring the skills and knowledge of its population to more competitive standards. Tennessee’s high school graduation rates between 2000 and 2005, for example, trailed the national average, as did its college graduation rates for both associate and bachelor’s degree seeking students in the same period (see Figure 1).


The efforts of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) to innovate beyond traditional academic models to improve postsecondary education for its students offer valuable insight into the dynamic and complex nature of sustainable change in higher education.

This case study explores TBR’s two curricular redesigns—its 2006–09 Developmental Studies Redesign (DSR) and its 2014–present Course Revitalization Redesign. Using John P. Kotter’s (2012) leading change framework to explore the complexity of system-led curricular change in higher education, a total of 16 key players at one of TBR’s two-year institutions and one of its four-year institutions were interviewed. What makes Tennessee compelling in its commitment to increase student attainment through course redesign is twofold: 1) its transition from a system-wide developmental education redesign to a system-wide gateway-course redesign and 2) simultaneous legislative support through the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010. These activities led the TBR to a co-requisite model that coordinates developmental education courses with credit-bearing classes. 


Transformative curricular change involves a synergy of context, meaningful analytics, effective structures and systems, strong leadership, and collective action that take root over time in the behavior and shared values across state-, system-, and institutional-level stakeholders. Key takeaways from this case study are as follows:  

Recognize That Context and Governance Structure Matter

Discussions regarding developmental education reform were under way prior to the DSR as Tennessee braced for budget constraints amid projected population and higher education enrollment growth. With authority to enact guidelines and polices that coordinate the work of its institutions, TBR managed a developmental education redesign effort as a pilot program devised, in part, to address demographic and financial concerns specific to the state context. The nexus of system- and state-level policies in Tennessee provided TBR not only a broad vision on which to hang its redesign work, but also the teeth needed to implement it across institutions and sustain the work over time.  

Use Data Analytics to Guide Innovation

TBR has been using data on the front end and back end of its course redesigns as a tool to increase student attainment. Initially, educational attainment statistics created urgency for change in Tennessee’s traditional academic models. Outcomes data from redesign pilots measured the effectiveness of new academic models, contributed to faculty buy-in, and informed policy change. Notably, those guiding data analytics must pay attention to faculty sensitivities, particularly involving terminology that might be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Furthermore, if systems have data requirements, system- and institution-level structures must align with monitoring or data collection policies to promote effective and efficient data collection.

Create Space for Innovation

As faculty and staff work through established assumptions about teaching and learning, systems and institutions must create a climate and culture for innovation, especially for accommodating ambiguity before data are available. In the case of TBR, a competitive, incentivized request for proposal process promoted faculty-led innovation. Incorporation of a financial model that supports innovative and sustainable change additionally fosters among stakeholders a higher comfort level with ambiguity and lessens anxiety around change, whether mandated or not. Such a model offers a framework for identifying clear, measurable outcomes, predicting the sustainability of initiatives, allocating resources, and tracking expenses.  

Set Expectations

Stakeholders must know what is expected of them and why. Leaders who set and communicate expectations bring clarity to the highly complex process of initiating change across and within institutions. Leadership at the system level also identifies or anticipates barriers to curricular redesigns and decides how and when to communicate expectations around the work. TBR set expectations through deliverables and timelines in its requests for proposals and subsequent policy change. Although senior administrators credit system-level leadership with striking an effective balance between open discussions and firm expectations, it is an ongoing challenge to ensure that faculty and staff receive the same message as administrators, which is fundamental to buy-in and long-term success

Promote Collective Action

While systems are well-positioned to lead change across institutions, collective action is key. This requires that campus leadership and relevant staff and faculty be engaged and mutually invested in the change process and targeted outcomes. TBR sought collective action by establishing urgency, working with a task force, communicating a vision, establishing buy-in, empowering action through a request for proposal process, generating short-terms wins, and building on change. Even with these efforts, securing multilateral collective action has been a challenge for TBR. Reasons differ across institutions, but they include an aversion to perceived coercive power, cultural or structural barriers, and/or pedagogical differences across disciplines. An ongoing collaborative process where leadership at both the system and institution levels adhered to best practices for implementing change might reduce tension and fear within institutions across redesigns. 


Companion Report: 

State Policy as a Tool for Postsecondary Developmental Education Reform: A Case Study of Connecticut

by Jonathan M. Turk, Christopher J. Nellum, and Louis Soares

Read the executive summary from the companion report and access the full PDF version.





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