NSpire - Ideas for Innovation


The Academic Innovation Lab

The Academic Innovation Lab was born out of the newly adopted “Strategic Plan 2023.” Subpoint 1 under Strategic Goal 1 “Advance the quality and reputation of the academic program” states:

Launch a faculty-led innovation lab focused on developing, enhancing, and supporting learner-focused teaching


The Lab met weekly for the duration of the 2018-19 academic year with the goal of producing a final report by May 31, 2019.

What was the Academic Innovation Lab’s purpose?

Fundamental to the Lab’s charge was the freedom to think courageously. Broadly speaking, the Lab was tasked with researching, identifying, and creating outside-the-box strategies for addressing NWC-specific academic needs. At our initial meeting, VPAA Dr. Mark Husbands situated the Lab’s purpose within our own institutional context:

  • Academic Program Prioritization—as the APP Task Force produces its final report and recommendations, some departments will need innovative solutions in the face of rising challenges
  • Already existing spaces for innovation—e.g. NWCore & FYS, Honors Program, and a potential center to foster entrepreneurship and innovation
  • The NWC Vision statement—the Lab’s task lies within the broader framework of “Christ-centered work for the common good”

The Lab addressed its charge in several phases:

Phase 1: Research

Based on recommendations from the VPAA, the Lab’s first task was to digest and discuss an array of recent sources on academic innovation. Some resources were narrower in focus (classroom pedagogy techniques, athletics, internships, “digital humanities”), while others addressed broader concerns of institutional culture (digital literacy, nontraditional students, centers for innovation). We used what we learned from these resources to jumpstart the brainstorming sessions that followed. Below are links to several of our original and ongoing resources.

Click here to skip ahead to Phase #2

Adobe: Digital Literacy

Leading change in public higher education

Trends in Undergraduate Education in the Humanities

The Adult Student: The population colleges - and the nation - can't afford to ignore

Robot Ready: Human skills for the future of work

Majors the Matter: Ensuring College Graduates Avoid Underemployment

Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges

One Way to Set Up Liberal-Arts Majors for Success: Focus on Skills

Innovation: What Every College Leader Needs to Know

Team Science: Interdisciplinarity has become all the rage in science

How Can Colleges Help Liberal-Arts Majors Enter the Job Market? Here’s What You Told Us.

The Power of Creativity: A new honors program is transforming student's thinking

Strategic Change and Innovation in Independent Colleges:
Nine Mission-Driven Campuses

Faculty Views on the Teaching Tools of Tomorrow: How digital textbooks and tech innovation impact professors’ work

The Chronicle’s Best Ideas for Teaching, 2017

Visitor Center for Admissions and Center for Meaningful Work

Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership

Embedded Creativity: Building a Culture of Innovation

Phase 2: Structural Approaches

Cognizant of the fact that the Lab’s output would need to be versatile enough to address multiple audiences, we discussed several structural models for innovation.  Eventually, we selected these three:

Pedagogical Structure

Classroom Department /Program Division Individual HigherEducation Institution

Faculty Responsibilities

Teaching InstitutionalService Scholarship

Institutional Mechanics

Policy Resources Culture

Phase 3: Brainstorming

In the first of these brainstorming sessions, the Lab aimed for breadth rather than depth.  Areas of need that surfaced in this discussion included:

Reaching adult learners, reaching high school students, student support systems, intra and extramural partnerships, student professionalism across the curriculum (writing, speaking, tech), faculty professional development (pedagogy, technology, mentoring), diversity in flexibility in course delivery, rigidity in institutional, structure disciplinary silos, and more ...

While we can point to significant achievement in some of these areas, we also noted room for improvement.

In time, these ideas were brought together into six “clusters”—broader headings with related subtopics—that represent NWC’s most critical areas in need of innovation.

Phase 4: NSpire

Rather than submit a traditional report, the Lab created NSpire—a dynamic, flexible resource for academic innovation that reflects our deep conviction that innovation requires adaptability, movement, and change.

At our first meeting, the Lab decided that our final report should embrace innovation not only in its content but also in its delivery.   Whereas the APP Task Force was charged with producing an accurate snapshot of NWC’s institutional health and wellness at this particular moment in time, the Lab embraced a different calling: to begin the process of changing NWC’s academic culture from this moment forward. As the deadline for the final report drew near, we realized that a traditional report—a written document emailed to the faculty or deposited into a folder on the J-drive—simply would not do.

Instead, we created NSpire.

NSpire is an interactive website that serves as a collector and disseminator of innovation for the entire Northwestern College community.  It has two primary functions:

  1. It summarizes forward-thinking approaches to innovative pedagogy, thriving faculty, student success, and institutional change. The Lab’s six “clusters” provide starting points for discussions that NWC must have if we are to survive in the changing world of higher education.
  2. It is an ever-growing, searchable treasury of innovative ideas, crowdsourced from the faculty, staff, and administration of Northwestern College. Anyone who has an idea that might help others improve their teaching, their academic programs, their departmental identity, or their connection with prospective students is encouraged to “Submit a New Idea” to NSpire.

NSpire is a “living” document. We hope it will inspire the Northwestern community for years to come.

Phase 5: Moving Forward

As the Lab journeyed through the literature on academic innovation, we noted that not every endeavor ends in long-term success.  Innovation requires sailing in uncharted waters littered with the debris of shipwrecked projects and institutional derelicts, once well-funded but now abandoned.  If a cautionary tale is needed, look to Black Mountain College.  The influential arts and design school that boasted luminaries on its faculty such as Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Walter Gropius closed after only 24 years due to accumulated debt. We would do well to learn from those who have gone before us.


With this caveat in mind, not only is innovation possible, it is critical in today’s fast changing world of higher education.  We offer these four reminders as guiding lights while we venture into open waters:


  1. Innovation is not a step that precedes implementation. These are not separate phases. Innovation is the ongoing reality of higher education.
  2. Innovation requires institutional buy-in. It cannot be the singular domain of a committee or a director (though we advocate for just such a position here). It will not happen at the institutional level if individual faculty and administrators do not show commitment to it.  Along these lines, we recommend that NSpire become a key tool in faculty recruitment and interviews.  New hires should be open to crossing the traditional boundary lines that have long defined the academy.
  3. One innovative initiative—even a big one—does not an innovative institution make. Innovation must permeate through the institution’s deepest structural components. If innovation becomes an appendage, it will fade away.
  4. Innovation requires tolerance for failure. The Lab recommends a balanced approach where we combine efforts that are more likely to succeed with pressing needs that require riskier solutions. Rushing headlong into large projects at the outset may run us aground. We should think strategically about how we might build momentum toward innovation.


These insights may shed light on our future endeavors, but we would be remiss if we did not include this final note:  Deus est lux.  The Lab has been mindful of the fact that much, though not all, of the literature on higher education lacks a Christian perspective.  Without that preeminent mission to do God’s redeeming work in the world, Northwestern is lost and adrift.  Having considered a number of approaches to general education, for example, we rarely see “forgiveness” or “sacrifice” or “generosity” among the learning objectives.  Businesses and organizations who will be our students’ employers rarely list them either, but they should see the effects when they hire one of our own.  Our guiding light is ultimately the forgiving, sacrificial, generous God who has admonished us to stand out from the world around us.  Every new idea must ultimately be rooted in the old, old story.

The Six Clusters

What follows are the six clusters distilled from the Academic Innovation Lab's discussions. The ideas within do not touch on every idea proposed (and certainly the recommendations do not cover every idea possible). These clusters represent what we believe are NWC’s most critical areas in need of innovation.

Cluster #1: A curriculum for the real world

In a world that is vigorously embracing STEM disciplines and professional programs, the term “liberal arts” is falling out of favor. Yet while the terminology faces headwinds, the skills and practices associated with traditional liberal arts coursework remain in high demand. The liberal arts have immense potential to strengthen “human” skills such as creativity, caring, collaborating, leading, and inspiring—all of which allow our graduates to be more agile, versatile, and valuable to employers. Our students find value in their majors; do they find similar value in our Core curriculum? To what extent are employers satisfied with the “human” skillset of today’s college graduates? Does our approach to liberal arts prepare students for life in the real world?


Core Structure

Academic majors plus “pathways” can more effectively integrate the values of Christian liberal arts with career goals.


Core Marketability

The importance of a Christian liberal arts core curriculum should resonate with prospective students and their parents.


Learning Outcomes vs Human Skills

What employers and students say they need doesn’t always match the language of the academy.

Northwestern College (Iowa) Chicago Semester Interns- Joey Novotny at Northwestern Mutual

Problem and Experience Based Learning

Real world challenges require real world opportunities for pursuing God’s redeeming work.


Ensuring NWCore Promotes Success in Today’s World

Update the goals and outcomes of the NWCore to develop and strengthen the knowledge and skills requisite for graduates’ success in the world of today and tomorrow

Northwestern College (Iowa) intern, Rebekah Muilenburg, at L'Arche, Oak Park/ Austin

Curricular Malleability

Flexible, creatively-designed minors and certificates foster nimbler responses to changing demands.

Cluster #2: Redefining “community” to embrace adult learners and transfer students

With the pool of traditional students declining in the Midwest and across the country, NWC needs to identify routes to increase student enrollment. The questions then for NWC are: How do we work with community colleges to increase students transfer for completion of their four-year degrees? How do we make our educational offerings more attractive to adult learners and students who cannot sit in a classroom full-time? And how do we keep these students engaged and part of our “community?”


Non-traditional Student Success Director

For adult and transfer students to feel part of the NWC community, someone needs to help coordinate the experience.


Transfer friendly policies and processes

Creating an easy transition for degree completion relies on collaboration and marketing.


Split / Hybrid / Online Classes

Flexible classrooms are essential to fit into working-student lives.


Online Campus Ministries

Providing online students resources for spiritual formation, growth and application.


Adult Learning Strategies

Adult learning needs are different than traditional students; flexibility, experiential learning and application.

Cluster #3: Externally focused “outroads”

Even though our mission statement boldly claims that we empower students to pursue God’s redeeming work in the world, the default mode of most institutions of higher education is preoccupation with what is going oninside—inside our offices, our classroom, our dorms, our campus, and our community. What if NWC was more deliberate about fostering conduits between our community and the world outside, creating a more porous community that relies on external relationships in order to thrive? Creating a place on campus, such as a center, to focus on external connections to NWC could allow local organizations, businesses, and ministries to enter our world and pave an “outroad” for our students to enter theirs.

We are not failing nor are we thriving in this area. The professional programs on campus have easier outroads to put learning into practice. We do recognize the interest that our students (and their parents) have in real-world applications. NWC has connections, which helps with our high job-placement rates. We should be proud of these achievements, but we also need to think creatively about how we can externalize our pedagogy in a way that is authentic and compelling to both prospective students, their future employers, and other stakeholders.


A Center Focused on the Third Mission

The third mission of a higher-education institution refers to all activities concerned with the generation, use, application, and exploitation of cross-disciplinary knowledge and other capabilities connecting teaching and scholarship to outside learning environments.


Creative Student 'Work' Exchange

Prospective students are often sticker-price shocked at the cost of college. Creative solutions can be win-win for local community and our enrollment.


Increased External Learning for All Programs

The most important factor for employability of college graduates is internship experience; ranking higher than a student’s major, extracurriculars, GPA, and even the reputation of the college from which the student graduated.

Cluster #4: Rethinking deep structures

We may not always realize it, but the institutional structures we have inherited, both from Northwestern’s own sense of history and from the traditions that have long governed higher education, may be standing in the way of innovation.  In a world where systemic problems and creative solutions ignore the disciplinary lines that define the academy, we are doing our students a disservice if we are not helping them develop cross-disciplinary skillsets.  But codified structures are not found in departmental and divisional breakdowns alone. They also reside in committee tasks, FHB rules, the academic schedule, or the faculty/staff divide. Furthermore, if innovation is to occur, faculty need time to create, collaborate, and construct.  In other words, time itself is a structural problem. Not all of the following subcategories are new or unique to NWC, but by making them explicit, the Lab hopes to draw attention to obstacles that may be so deeply embedded that we have a hard time seeing them.


Professional Academic Advisors

Professional academic advisors for highly populated departments.


Invest in IT Resources

The higher education environment today requires a well-resourced IT department that can aid the institution as it capitalizes on new opportunities driven by technological advances.


Reducing Time Constraints

Faculty must have the time to innovate. NWC should consider flexible scheduling formats and other resources to reduce some demands on faculty time.


Break Down Departmental Silos

Breaking down departmental and divisional silos and allowing for more problem-based interdisciplinary learning across traditional academic borders.


Leverage Existing Areas of Innovation

Leveraging the Honors Program as a laboratory for in-house, experimental curricular changes that might eventually spread to other programs on campus.

Cluster #5: Flourishing, energized faculty

Faculty flourishing is key to the flourishing of our mission and the college as a whole—as go the faculty, so goes the college. Thus, any attempts to build innovation into the fabric of Northwestern must involve processes that nurture, celebrate, and reward innovation among our faculty. Processes that encourage and generate more cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary collaborations in teaching and scholarship should be pursued and implemented.

Increasing and foregrounding efforts to help faculty develop more sophisticated and theologically astute approaches to faith, teaching, and scholarship integration should become a priority in faculty development. Increasing opportunities for faculty growth in the use of digital resources and emerging technologies should be developed. New approaches to faculty evaluation can help direct, focus, and support these efforts. All of this should be designed to foster a culture of excellence at the college, a culture that values the life of the mind in the context of faithful Christian pedagogy and scholarship.


Director of Teaching and Learning Innovation

Faculty can better leverage new learning technologies and innovate in teaching with the support of an expert in both pedagogy and technology.


Faculty Learning Communities

Cross-disciplinary and cross-rank groups of faculty who mentor each other to promote instructional excellence and guide each other through tenure processes.


Summer Faculty Grants

Excellence in faculty scholarship will be encouraged and rewarded through competitive eight-week summer research stipends.


Faculty Evaluation

Evaluation criteria should incentivize continual pedagogical advancement and innovation.

Cluster #6: Thriving, dynamic students

College students face a myriad of challenges to their success—financial burdens, mental health issues, multiple demands on time—besides the academic rigors that are necessary for them to thrive once they graduate.  We want Northwestern to be a place where obstacles are minimized through careful attention, not maximized due to our neglect or ignorance. We are on the right track with the Wellness Center, tutoring, and part-time job opportunities, but we still have room for improvement.  Student success must be based first and foremost upon our academic programs, but we should not ignore the fact that a successful college experience amounts to far more than assignments and exams.  Ironically,  students are finding spaces in which to thrive—practice fields, Intercultural Affairs, Campus Ministry, dorms, Praise and Worship—where faculty rarely spend time. If we want our academic mission to show itself not just in job placement but in redeemed people doing redeeming work, how can we best facilitate a holistic Christian educational experience? Our students struggle, even the best ones, and ensuring their ability to thrive should be a top priority.


Update Advising Tools

An overhaul of MyNWC that gives more student access to and control of degree audits, advising procedures, and registration.


Athletes to Scholars

An 'athlete to scholar' program that brings together faculty and coaches—two of our students’ primary mentors during their college experience—and walks students through the steps for thriving in both areas.


Integrating Campus Experiences for Enhanced Learning

Unique programming can help to blur the lines between academics, residence life, campus ministry, and athletics for a more holistic approach to education.