Committed to Innovation

A director of excellence in teaching and learning coordinates a collaborative culture of academic innovation at Penn State's Smeal College.

heads with talk bubbles and gears

IN 2016, THE SMEAL College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in University Park was well into its restructuring of the professional graduate portfolio. Its goal was to increase enrollments by making the program more market-ready, integrated, and efficient. But to sustain this effort, administrators knew they would need someone to serve as a central touch point for faculty and foster a wide-ranging teaching community. In 2019, I was hired to take on this responsibility in a newly created position: the director of excellence in teaching and learning.

Why is this role so important? As the first to fill this position, I was tasked with creating a culture where everyone is committed to academic innovation. For me, the biggest challenge of taking on this role was its newness. Therefore, at the very beginning, I made sure to explain to faculty how I would work for them—how I could help them connect the dots between their courses in ways that would enhance student learning.

To begin creating a culture of academic innovation, I started with Smeal College’s online professional graduate portfolio (PGP). The PGP includes the online MBA (OMBA) and other online master’s programs. (Read more in “The Integrated Program Portfolio,” published in BizEd’s November/December 2019 issue.)

My immediate goals were threefold:

To integrate academic innovation across our program portfolio. I quickly began talking to faculty one-on-one, so that I could better understand their needs and concerns. More important, these discussions allowed me to identify needs that faculty had in common across the portfolio, which we could best address with shared solutions.

I found that faculty were most concerned about having to move their teaching online. They were worried about having to learn an entirely different way of teaching while they managed an already heavy workload. They also worried that bigger class sizes would require greater time commitments. I assured them that it requires a team of people to deliver online education effectively—faculty would not be on their own. Once I explained that they would be making this transition as part of a larger team, they became more comfortable with the idea of change.

To create opportunities for professional development. I wanted to design formal and informal opportunities for faculty to expand their knowledge, experience, and confidence in online teaching. I worked to strengthen peer-to-peer connections and arranged mentoring and personal consultations. I wanted to offer them relaxed, yet impactful, opportunities to learn and collaborate.

To coordinate and maintain the Creative Team Model. At Smeal College, the Creative Team Model (CTM) involves strategic collaboration among faculty, teaching support specialists (TSSs), and instructional designers. Each creative team focuses on a specific course in the portfolio. As director, I coordinated the pilot of the CTM in our OMBA program. During that pilot, we discovered that our creative teams could create more dynamic and vibrant student experiences than faculty had previously achieved on their own.


As we worked to grow our PGP, we knew we would have to accommodate a swift increase in enrollments and a limited faculty supply. That would require us to control costs where we could. That’s where CTM comes in. As I mention above, the CTM framework relies on a synergy of expert skills, not the perspectives of solo faculty, to design and deliver courses. The three dimensions of this model include one lead faculty (academic expert), one instructional designer (learning theory expert), and one TSS (professional/online alumnus).

TSSs are full-time professionals with an average of 12 years of work experience related to the subjects of the courses they support. And as graduates of our online professional master’s programs, our TSSs have a keen sense of the online student experience. TSSs are compensated for approximately ten hours of course support per week throughout the semester. To date, we have had approximately 30 TSSs, employed by companies worldwide, who work from a distance to innovate online classrooms in the OMBA program.

Chart of creative team model at Smeal College

Within the Smeal College's Creative Team Model, each lead faculty member is supported
by a learning analyst, an instructional designer, and a professional who acts as a teaching
support specialist. In the second iteration of our model, we will collect and analyze data
from our courses so that we can design more effective and timely interventions.

We ask our teams to view the delivery of online education as a team sport. We encourage the members of each creative team to experiment with innovations in their assigned course—when something works well, we roll it out in other courses. This model allows us to accomplish more than we could before—and do it cost effectively.

One innovation inspired by our CTM framework has been our adoption of student self-assessments. In many of our courses, faculty post questions to students, and each question can inspire up to 350 separate posts as students engage over the topic. That level of engagement is wonderful, but the members of one creative team took the process one step further, by asking a critical question: “How can we efficiently provide useful feedback to students across so many responses, in multiple discussions?”

To answer this question, the team decided to experiment with student self-assessment. They created a rubric that each student in their courses could use to assess the value of their contributions to the boards. From that experiment, we found that asking students to perform self-assessments can actually lead to better learning outcomes and more engagement than we could achieve through faculty assessment. Believe it or not, students often evaluate themselves more harshly than their professors do.

Once we realized that using self-assessments could enhance student engagement, streamline grading, and reduce faculty workload, we shared the analytics and technology behind it with teams for other courses. Different instructors use different rubrics, but each rubric generally measures performance across three dimensions: how well students demonstrate knowledge in relation to the academic frameworks they have learned, how well they apply that knowledge, and how thoughtfully and openly they engage with others.

We have found that the act of self-assessment makes students more aware of when they are making valuable contributions to the discussion. They are far less likely to merely express opinion or talk to hear themselves talk.


For Smeal faculty to sustain an innovative academic culture, we have asked them all to commit to continuous professional development. After we define the competency that each creative team requires for a particular course—with respect to technology, pedagogy, and content—we conduct needs assessments on an ongoing basis. In these assessments, we identify faculty’s existing skills and determine any skills or tools they might need to ignite innovation. Then, I draw from the collection of training offered by experts across the university to assemble a personalized toolbox of resources for each individual. We also organize peer-to-peer discussions and mentoring programs, as well as customized workshops that I facilitate with the help of our instructional design teams.

To inspire more peer-to-peer idea sharing among faculty, we have removed boundaries that previously existed around our course content, so that all creative teams have access to materials and strategies used by all courses, not just their own. This simple change in practice has sparked rich discussion among the teams around how they can better integrate content, use technology for engagement, and streamline our assessment strategies. Traditional teaching models do not typically foster such an open-door policy across courses.


We also hold monthly Course Showcase meetings—one-hour Zoom sessions in which our teams share best practices and process redesigns. Team members share challenges that they have encountered in the classroom, and their stories often resonate with other teams. These meetings often become constructive problem-solving sessions related to common difficulties that teams are facing. 


Today, the Smeal College’s OMBA consists of 13 core courses, which are supported by 30 faculty, 27 TSSs, and four learning designers. Plans now are in place to expand the OMBA model of shared services and cross-disciplinary collaboration across the entire graduate professional portfolio. As we make this transition, we will follow the blueprint we have created from our experience restructuring the OMBA.

This blueprint is based on ten principles:

1.  Communicate the mission.

2.  Align key activities and discussions with the mission.

3.  Educate all stakeholders on the problem and the definition of success.

4.  Solicit input at every step along the way.

5.  Don’t recreate wheels that are already working.

6.  Be sensitive to cultural shifts that accompany change.

7.  Encourage risk, build trust, and recognize effort.

8.  Rethink the processes—even (or especially) those that have been in place the longest.

9.  Foster an experimental culture in which prototyping innovation is the norm.

10. Measure what matters—the student experience.

In addition, we have been fortunate that, over the last four years, our dean has supported the school’s restructuring efforts by allocating the necessary resources, as well as reassessing policies and processes that might not support a more modern teaching model. Moreover, he has publicly demonstrated his unwavering commitment to our efforts, setting the tone and serving as the catalyst for change.

In our next steps, we want to continue to “walk the talk” of academic innovation by making the following three actions a priority:

Adopt a 21st-century approach to curriculum revision. Academic institutions have traditionally revised their curricula once every three to five years. But in today’s competitive higher education landscape, we can no longer wait that long between revision cycles. To simply keep up with change, we must maintain an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement and course modification.

Dedicate time for academic innovation. Smeal College has put in place a three-year Course Innovation Plan. This plan sets aside dedicated time for our creative teams to develop course innovations in five primary areas: content, technology, pedagogy, inclusion and diversity, and learning analytics.

Harness big data. Earlier in the program, we had relied on mid-course student surveys and teaching evaluations to alert us to areas in need of change. But these approaches did not allow us to measure actual impact. That’s why we will be adopting data analytics in the next version of the Smeal College’s Creative Teams Model—let’s call it CTM 2.0. In fact, we have hired one of our TSSs, a former student of mine who has a passion for analytics, as a part-time learning analyst.

In our 2.0 model, we are using the NVivo and Tableau software platforms to gather and analyze data, so that we can gain a more sophisticated understanding of how our students and instructors behave and interact. Only through analytics can we ensure that an innovation we design has a measurable impact on student learning.

For example, when we recently collected data on our students’ participation on the discussion boards, we discovered that too many were waiting until Saturday and Sunday to make posts. With this data in hand, we brought our teams together to ask, “How can we redesign the course to change this student behavior?”


Together, our creative teams came up with a plan: Faculty would write more application-oriented discussion prompts that inspired immediate reaction and allowed students to layer ideas around the lesson topic. We also decided to start each discussion at the beginning or the middle of the week rather than at the end of each lesson. After we made these interventions, the data showed that student participation became more evenly paced throughout the week.

I think of this process as an ongoing dance of creative intervention. We might not always know what the data means, but we can use analytics to inspire us to talk about problems and experiment with solutions based on the student behaviors we see.

Throughout this process, our teams-based approach has been a central, critical component to our never-ending quest to keep our programs on the leading edge. With our culture of shared ideas and experimentation in place, I believe that the future possibilities are endless!

Janet Duck of Smeal College Janet Duck is the director of excellence in teaching and learning in the professional graduate programs office at the Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in University Park.