Last month, we had the opportunity to host a presentation at the
Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators (PAPSA) annual conference with one of our partners, Central Penn College. The presentation discussed how the school made major improvements to their online learning program a few years ago, and I think their full story is too good not to share. So, here’s a quick retelling of how Central Penn’s interesting approach  is leading to dramatic changes in the online student experience:

Central Penn was an early adopter of online education, and launched their first online classes in 2003. This delivery channel grew rapidly in popularity over the years even as the school’s online policies, procedures, teaching methods, and technology slowly became outdated. By 2011, half of Central Penn’s credit hours were delivered online. Everyone was happy until the school’s chief academic officer enrolled in an online course at another school.

Central Penn’s normal processes had not resulted in online education keeping pace with the competition. A new approach was needed to cut through the bureaucracy that had caused the school to adapt too slowly. In 1943, the US military faced a similar problem; Germany had developed jet fighters before them. They turned to Lockheed for help, and the company formed an autonomous team called a skunkworks, named after a location in the popular cartoon strip, Li’l Abner. Hidden from the rest of the company by empty crates and a circus tent, this team delivered a working prototype in 143 days.

Taking a page from Lockheed’s playbook, Central Penn formed its own “skunkworks” in May 2012. By October, the team had developed a comprehensive proposal to dramatically improve online education at the College.

Forming and outfitting the skunkworks was no easy task. The brightest minds from the faculty, online education, admissions, and information technology were needed, but their plates were full with the day-to-day responsibilities in their job descriptions. The team needed a place to work in secret where their creativity would be stimulated, but all campus spaces were open and sterile. Finally, there was no budget to fund the research, consulting, hardware, and software needed by the group. The chief academic officer and I.T. director had to call in favors and make promises to free up funds, space, and personnel.

The team was given a conference room decorated with toys to stimulate their creativity. (It turns out skunk stuffed toys are not very popular, but one was located after a bit of searching!) They were also given computers, printers, a budget, research from the library, and most importantly, autonomy. The team was charged with developing “a new strategy for online education at Central Penn to achieve great learning outcomes, a fantastic student experience, and significantly increased enrollment.” They were discouraged from seeking guidance from management, and were required to produce only one-page weekly status reports listing topics being discussed and any additional resources required by the team to be successful.

The team began meeting and had to overcome several roadblocks. The space was too small, so they ended up meeting offsite frequently. It was difficult for team members to leave their preconceived notions at the door, so the team leader had to exercise great leadership skills. They had no administrative support, so everyone had to pitch in. Sometimes, they got stuck on one topic, even though they needed to move through topics quickly. Eventually, things began to click. With the help of a key partner, they were able to produce a comprehensive proposal on time.

Although the Lockheed skunkworks produced a prototype in November 1943, the first planes weren’t deployed into service until July, 1945, too late to see combat in World War II. Central Penn’s skunkworks delivered its proposal at the end of 2012. They are currently  still discussing the proposal and how to best move forward with it.

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