Considerations for ed tech and innovation

This is a continuation of a series of posts on innovation, and is my attempt to get a bit more pragmatic about the topic, namely because I was asked to frame some of my thinking into a workshop on innovation in higher education. There’s a number of ways to go with the topic, so I’m starting with some thoughts on considerations for innovation, which in this post I’m using somewhat interchangeably with educational technology. So if you are uncomfortable with the word innovation, you can swap in educational technology and arrive at a similar place.

For starters, it’s important to highlight Tony Bates’ well-established SECTIONS model for selecting educational technologies or media.  It’s a great place to start if you are an instructional designer trying to make decisions about educational technology in course and program design.  But when talking about innovation and ed tech at an institutional strategic level, I think it can be a good idea to take a step back and ask some bigger questions of your institution.

In considering considerations, I think it’s important to begin with a thinking (or erasing?) exercise that asks you to forget everything you know or think you know about ed tech and start over.  At many of our institutions ed tech thinking starts with the LMS, and whether we like it our not the LMS’s institutionally friendly attributes have an important role in shaping our thinking about teaching and learning.

Once you’ve erased your ed tech slate, you are ready to embark on some considerations:

  • Consideration #1:  What is the learning trajectory of students who interface with your institution? What data do you have about your students and does it tell an accurate story about the trajectory?
  • Consideration #2: What is the key driver of educational technology decisions at your institution (eg. access, best possible learning environment, institutional profile, institutional differentiation). You have to pick one, but you can acknowledge that others come into play.
  • Consideration #3: What does innovation mean at your institution by the various stakeholders? Does it line up with #1 and #2?
  • Consideration #4: What are the problems that need to be solved that could be solved by ed tech?  Is your current ed tech environment solving or hindering these problems?
  • Consideration #5:  Can you afford to not be/go open in some areas of your activities?
  • Consideration #6: What can be done to get at 4 and 5?  This is innovation.

If I was to go back in time six years when I started my role at JIBC, I would try to systematically engage in a process to get at some of these questions. In reality, the questions emerged over time and in a different order – #2, 3, 4, 6, 1, 5.  This is how it played out for us:

 Consideration #2:  It was pretty consistently stated that JIBC’s driver for ed tech came from a provincial mandate, meaning we have to deliver our programs across a very large geographic area, including rural and remote communities.  So for us, educational technology was primarily about access – making it possible for rural and remote communities to avoid expensive travel to Vancouver, and to give greater opportunity for BC communities to access our programs.

 Consideration #3:  Given #2, there was a very strong collective desire to innovate on how to do this.  We had an LMS, and had a web conferencing tool, but there was a sense that this wasn’t enough and was producing satisfactory but not good enough results.  So innovation meant finding new models of delivery, new formats for our courses and programs, and better tools.  There was also a common theme in that JIBC felt like it had been a leader in educational technology in the past (which they truly were, but that’s a subject of another post), but hadn’t evolved or kept up enough to maintain that status.  Anecdote:  In my first month at JIBC I was asked by the President in front of a JIBC -wide forum to comment on our ed tech status. I responded that I felt that they already had many of the tools to do what they needed to do  (LMS, video streaming, video production, web conferencing). This was clearly the wrong answer and was definitely a TSN turning point in my appreciation and underestimation of JIBC.  

 Consideration #4:  JIBC had a huge appetite and appreciation for educational technology, and unlike other institutions I’d worked at previously, there wasn’t a need to sell the importance at the institution, as illustrated by the above anecdote.  There was a greater need to push the envelope, but it took a while to get at the problems that needed to be solved. For example, it took some innovative people in some of our programs to turn me onto mobile (Consideration #6) by putting it into a real professional context (and that’s where the ball really dropped).  As the anecdote hints, the President, and JIBC generally, didn’t feel like the ed tech environment that existed was solving the problems that needed to be solved. But being able to translate this collective dissatisfaction into an articulation of a future direction emerged over time.  This is partly because we hadn’t really unpacked #1.

Consideration #1:  We arrived at a clear articulation of the JIBC learner trajectory through a number of data points.  Institutional data showed that a significant percentage of our students come back to do additional programs and credentials, many of which are very niche, unique kinds of course and programs not offered elsewhere. In other words, we are truly a lifelong learning institution for many of our students, partly because of the kinds of programs we offer.   And because of the kinds of professions and communities that we work with, we know that our students often have a relationship with JIBC before enrolling in our programs. Additionally, one of our research surveys showed data that most of our students are working full time while attending our institution, and age group distribution is fairly equal between 18 and 60+.

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The different data points about our students lead us to the following description of a JIBC student trajectory, where we tried to articulate the student relationship with the JIBC before, during, and after taking a course or a program. This, of course, had important implications for educational technology decisions and innovations, namely, that things that we create or implement should be things that students not only use while they are at JIBC but have direct application and use in the professions or communities in which they work. This is also how we ended up at # 5.

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Consideration #5: In BC we are fortunate to be part of a higher education sector that encourages and supports open, facilitated by BCcampus. Once we had an understanding of #1, the rationale to go open in some areas of our activities was clear. This is really the subject of another post, but using WordPress to make courses and parts of courses available to students at any phase of their learning trajectory ended up being a win for both students and the communities with whom we work.

Our current ed tech/innovation formula:

In some my posts on innovation, I talked about how we didn’t go the flagship innovation initiative route, but instead focused on a few smaller initiatives that have converged. Our new innovation formula -for lack of a better word – ended up being mobile + wordpress + open = innovation*. However it has to be underlined that the context for this is a combination and result of considerations 1-6, which obviously will be variable depending on the institution. This is why I think it’s important to scrutinize both current ed tech environments and the latest innovation flavours of the month, be they e-portfolios, mobile, augmented reality, etc., since it’s quite possible that it doesn’t make sense in a particular institutional context.

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*we also do a lot of scenario-based experiential learning and simulations, but this was already well established at JIBC.

Innovation in Higher Education

I spent the better part of last week at CNIE 2014 in Kamloops where I got to enjoy some good sunshine, great TRU hospitality, great music, and good presentations and conversations with old and new colleagues.  It was probably the first time I’d been to a conference where I left with a feeling that there was a common angsty thread in many of the discussions around innovation, nicely kicked off by Audrey Watters and already captured on her blog Hack Education (how does she do that so fast??) and wrapped up by Brian Lamb (not yet posted but hopefully captured).

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.39.05 PMThe purpose of my presentation–slides here–was to talk about how an over-investment in the LMS occurs at the expense of innovative tools that we need in our sector to address our teaching and learning problems.  I don’t feel like vendors really provide us  with the tools we actually need, and perhaps they shouldn’t be providing them anyways.  I use JIBC as an example of an institution whose roots are genuinely in experiential, real-life, and applied learning, but as more and more of our contact hours go online, we are left with few, if any tools that allow us to do appropriately.

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The LMS is both everything and nothing at our institution–it allows us to go online with our content and provide greater access to the students we reach in 183 communities across BC, but it is hardly the ideal tool for experiential and applied learning.  It is also not ideal for open courses such as this one (for which we increasingly use WordPress), 1-3 day short courses (the bread and butter of our institution), or very specific learning environments such as simulations.

In my presentation I point to three examples of tools created at public post-secondary institutions in response to problems that needed to be solved that couldn’t be solved by an LMS.  The first was Praxis, a web-based synchronous tool created at JIBC for conducting live simulation “exercises”.  This tool is now an increasing part of our programming, because it allows us to do online what we were well-known for face-to-face.



The second is Radicl, a BCIT- created tool for the Medical Radiography program which allows for logging and critiquing images between instructors, students, and preceptors.

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The third is one I was introduced to at the conference, a type of competency tracking tool called Power for logging medical student case logs, created at U of T Faculty of Medicine in conjunction with a vendor.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.46.29 PMAll of these tools demonstrate the degree to which public post-secondary education can be innovative and create innovative tools. Unfortunately, they are all currently closed innovations despite being tools that have relevance and use across the sector.  U of T shares IP with the vendor that developed it, and both Praxis and Radicl aren’t currently open for use in other institutions.  In an era of diminishing institutional resources these tools are viewed by administrators as potential revenue streams and there is really no incentive to offer them up as open source tools to be shared across the sector.  We would rather spend millions on low risk, yet low satisfaction (for the most part) vendor products than create tools that address our teaching and learning contexts and share them across the province.   We view open tools as risky and resource intensive, yet we have entire teams dedicated to enhancing the LMS experience for students.  We think that our institutions are too small or incapable of creating innovative things, yet we forget that  the sector collectively has the capacity to take back our agency that we so willingly give to vendors who don’t share our interests.

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There is no doubt that vendors have created a buzzword out of  innovation.  But in the same way that public education has been able to take back textbooks and scholarly publications by adopting an open approach, a parallel activity needs to happen around open and collaborative innovation of our teaching and learning tools.  To me, this is a much less risky, and more sustainable approach to our sector.



The best thing I read this week…

The @alexismadrigal piece on reverse engineering Netflix made the rounds this week on Twitter and I was glad I didn’t ignore it.  As somebody with a background in linguistics and having spent some time in the discourse analysis and corpus linguistics world, I found the whole technical description of the Netflix grammar building  and analysis quite fascinating.  But it also had me thinking about innovation, and how innovation is positioned in the private sector as compared to the public post secondary sector.

A couple of years ago my institution hosted an online course showcase for a largely BC post secondary audience.  One of the presenters was an instructional design contractor who worked a lot with private industry.  She presented a project (see Rouxbe, Video/Part 10) that was created for a local private culinary school where comprehensive culinary training was created to be delivered entirely online, and then licensed globally to various culinary schools.  The quality of the videos, audio, and design of the instruction was remarkable, but it was the purpose built LCMS used to deliver that had several of us in the audience wondering how we could get our hands on it.  The presenter, sensing our questions, explained that the school had invested a lot of money into creating this system and it was unlikely that any public institution would be able to do the same but perhaps our own systems (read:  LMS’s to which we are tied) would catch up eventually.

The type of innovation that both Netflix and the small, private culinary school realized is obviously driven by the prospect of substantial financial gains.  Yet, both of these examples left me thinking that innovation was pushed well beyond simply satisfactory.  In contrast, in our sector, characterized by years of depleting funds, bureaucracies imposed to make sure innovators don’t go too wild and crazy (eg. gatekeeping business cases, committees)  we seem to have forgotten to push for more, to have greater expectations of what we can actually deliver.  Increasingly, we seem to be just trying to get by and make do, and this is somehow acceptable because we are public sector.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the problem lies in the many innovators that are in our institutions, but rather the knowledge and expectations of the leadership and the structures that we have created within our systems that impede our ability to do this.  When small, private culinary schools are able to innovate in a way that their public cousins cannot, to me this signals a problem that we should be paying attention to.