Call to Action: Overhaul our Professional Learning and Development

I have some exciting news. We are on the brink of a very important era in Higher Education. If you are the type of person that sees opportunity in every difficulty– then you are in the right field at the right time. It doesn’t matter if you are 23 or 63. It doesn’t matter if you are in your first graduate assistantship, or a Vice President at one of the largest schools in the country. If you are ready to roll up your sleeves, think differently, and face challenges head on– then we hope you are ready to join the movement to change the way we organize, promote and deliver professional learning and development.

Being an innovator and change agent is a very demanding matter that requires a perfect blend of ambition, determination and imagination.

I have some alarming news. We are delivering professional development programming the same way we did 28 years ago. 28 years ago a toddler learning to talk might have said things like google or wiki and one would not think twice about their gibberish. 28 years ago home movies of little girls reading “kittens inspired by kittens” went into the closet filled with video tapes, not onto YouTube for millions to view. The way we share, create, receive, and search information has dramatically changed. Yet the way we share, create and receive information, ideas and “best practices” has not changed. Sure there are webinars and twitter chats now, but that’s not what I mean. The cornerstone professional development programs represented by the alphabet soup of Higher Ed conferences have not changed dramatically in the last 28 years. We still collect hundreds of program proposals to fill up one hour time slots with a multitude of programs. We still fill conferences with “best practices” in our industry and rarely bring in experts from outside our industry. Many will argue we are just seeing a churn of the same ideas over and over again.

We are working with one of the most complex generations in history. We are challenged with multi-dimensional problems that need thoughtful solutions. If this excites you, keep reading… If not, get excited!! We can handle this.

Where do big ideas come from? I am talking about the type of ideas that will help us solve complex problems and design intentional strategies for this generation. I have a theory…

Did you know Mark Zuckerberg studied both computer programming AND psychology? Steve Jobs traveled India studying enlightenment the year before he started Apple. Many of the most remarkable thought leaders and innovators in our history have one thing in common. They surrounded themselves with experts in varying industries and looked outward for inspiration. I have a theory. We are experts. We have expertise in content areas such as cultural pluralism, higher education administration, college student learning and development and we have expertise in specific functional areas. However, everyday there is some task or project that requires us to use skills for which we have not received any real training or education. If we didn’t believe that, why else would we invest time and resources into professional learning and development? There are people that have expertise in employing specific skill sets, or they may have a passion for topical areas like creativity, social entrepreneurship, negotiating, influencing behavior, social media/technology, etc. When we are exposed to their passion and expertise in these skills or areas of expertise, and we reflect on what we know about college students, and then we synthesize both areas of expertise….voila! WE COME UP WITH BIG IDEAS!


A fitness coordinator working in Recreation on a college campus is inspired by Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, talking about the magic of improvisation. He gives an animated talk at a conference about creating a scene to foster positive feelings and help others notice the world around them. This talk really resonates with the fitness coordinator. This experience hearing from Charlie Todd has inspired her welcome week program for next August. It will be an “Improv Everywhere” style scene on the quad with students staging a Yoga class one by one entering the scene in a different yoga pose. The scene will give students, watching this all unfold, a smile and laugh as they try to figure out what’s happening, a shared experience with fellow students, and a great story to tell mom and dad. Not to mention, the buzz around campus  prompting intrigue and excitement about the Recreation department.

If I could wave a wand to change the way this profession plans and delivers professional learning and development this is what I would wish for:
  • Conference planners or “chairs” change their title (and mindset) to “curator”. They curate the planning team, speakers, sponsors, and every aspect of the conference to ensure each component is hand selected.
  • Conference planning team members must go to one conference outside of our industry in the year leading up to the conference to forage for new ideas to be implemented into the conference experience and design.
  • Professional development is delivered by experts. Not the guy that read the book about it. The person that eat, sleeps and BREATHES the particular skill or content area.
  • Higher Ed administrators start attending conferences outside our industry to present on college students. That’s our expertise and there are many industries that will benefit from our knowledge of college student development and Higher Education.
Until someone creates this wonderful wand, I am going to dedicate my career to this. Who’s with me?

Courtney O’Connell
President Elect, The Jersey Alliance
Big Ideas Conference, Curator



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5 responses to “Call to Action: Overhaul our Professional Learning and Development

  1. I am IN. Concerned about the lack of evolution in our approaches as well and want to connect more to new solutions! Keep writing – you inspire me to keep working on new models!

    • Cindy, thanks for your vote of support! We hope you can make it to the conference. Either way we appreciate your enthusiasm and are looking forward to working together to make some BIG IDEA changes in higher ed!

  2. Great post, right on! The best ideas are hybrid and there are many, many connections to be made that will transform our professional and personal lives. Thanks for getting the conversation started!

  3. Great post! I’ve taken a break from some of our usual professional meetings because the content seemed too similar from year to year. I’d love to attend a conference outside Student Affairs, both for exploring and for sharing. On our own campus we’re going to experiment with our student leadership conference next fall. Our campus Common Theme for 2012-13 is “Creativity and Innovation.” What better time for our “curating” team to craft something new!

    In other words, count me in!

  4. Pingback: Starting the New Academic Year with Purpose | thejerseyalliance

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