Exploring The Development Process Of Innovative Graduate Programs For Adult Learners At A U.S. Midwestern Public University

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Louann A Bierlein Palmer, Ed.D.

Second Advisor

Brian S. Horvitz, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Charles S. Pearson, Ph.D.


Adult learners, change theory, disruptive innovation, educational instructional technology, innovations in higher education, program development in higher education


This case study explores the development process of two innovative graduate programs designed to serve the needs of adult learners for programs at a U.S. Midwestern public university. This case study also explores how leaders addressed issues of allocating funding and other resources, contributed to improved processes, and addressed the problem of resistance to change during and after the development and implementation of such programs. Additionally, it also examines how they plan to support further development of graduate programs that integrate specific innovative and alternative approaches such as prior learning assessments and/or competency-based education.

For this study, I used a conceptual framework based on the elements of the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation) instructional design model, and I also used three theories as lenses for my work: educational theory of change (Goodson, 2001), disruptive innovation theory (Christensen et al., 2011, 2015, 2018), and theory u (Scharmer, 2018). As a result of my findings, I offer suggested enhancement to the ADDIE model focused on education-related agile values.

For this study, using snowball sampling, 13 individuals were selected among leadership, faculty, and support staff for interviews to share their experience working directly and indirectly in the design and development process of two different graduate programs, as well as their experience navigating the complex system of higher education to initiate and adopt change. In addition, over 20 internal and external documents were examined, and four meetings were attended to explore how the selected programs were initiated, developed, and implemented, and how they are going to expand further to address many needs of stakeholders.

Overall, interviews, meetings, and examination of documents revealed that in this public institution there is a significant focus on how to address declining enrollment and improve retention through the development of alternative options for working adult learners, with a goal of more flexible, affordable, and high-quality education. There are change-makers, both at the administration and faculty levels who know current trends and needs, and they have a vision and desire to use various strategies to transform the institution into a sustainable one that can be agile to address the needs of all stakeholders. At the same time, there are barriers and outdated processes and policies or just a lack of awareness and communication that inhibit the initiation and implementation of collaboration and the introduction of needed change. This study also covers how an enhanced prior learning assessment policy was enacted for the entire university, offering faculty a voluntary and flexible option to help improve their existing programs.

Change takes time, especially in public higher education, but it is possible. While many described challenges in the program development process, including how time-consuming and slow it is to create new initiatives via a multi-level approval process, some participants found such processes helpful by offering feedback to better program offerings. Leaders in this university also work to minimize risks and resistance by identifying interested faculty and supporting them to unleash their potential for change. This includes helping faculty with needed resources and helping them to build connections with others who are also interested in needed changes.

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