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.



word of the day

originally uploaded by VROG Bristol

flickr photo originally uploaded by VROG

…to describe the countless hours I seem to be spending filling forms and dotting my ‘i’s’ and crossing my ‘t’s’–paperganda (or paperazzi, if you prefer). But instead of whining, I’ll try to turn this into a constructive thought…

My (lack of) patience for paperganda mirrors my escalating impatience with technology that is overly complicated and requires too much of my valuable time fiddling to get to work. Admittedly, I am a bit equipment challenged–cell phones, VCRs, etc–but I’m hardly a technophobe…I like to think I kind of get how computers and software and digital technology in general works. Today I needed to test a headset for an Elluminate session I’m doing next week. Test 1: internal mic and speakers (on a Toshiba laptop). Not good. Why not? Aren’t we there yet? I’m not trying for CBC quality here–it would be nice if I could talk into my laptop and have it be good enough for a synchronous session in a noiseless environment. Test 2: fancy pants headset from AV services. Nada. I didn’t read the manual, but why should I? Shouldn’t we be able to just plug it in and have it work? Test 3: Borrowed USB headset from colleague. Success!

These kinds of experiences (and a recent post over at EdTechPost) remind me of the aggravation that instructors invariably face when they’re trying to use technology for teaching, hence the inspiration for the 2 minute tools workshops that I started doing last year. Obviously we’d like instructors to feel empowered by technology, not intimidated. And while FOI concerns are often being cited as reasons not to use some of the good 2.0 stuff out there that really can be learned in 2 minutes or less, what else do we have, and can we afford not to? Why would institutions really want to keep investing in questionable tools whose threshold is too high and therefore attracts less users or requires more support? I’ve taught workshops to instructors on how to use gliffy, google docs, and zoho wiki in less than 2 minutes (sometimes they’ve timed me) and the reaction is so gratifying–instructors who never dreamed of having even a simple web page are amazed that they can do it in the same amount of time it takes for the barrista to make their latte.

So, a note to developers and institutional IT departments (not that they’re reading this, but anyways…)

Less is more. Less is more. Less is more. This means:

1. I don’t need a tool that can do everything. It just needs to do a few things well and easily, and integrate with other tools that can pick up from there. Eg. Create an image in Gliffy, then bring it into Google docs to finish the job.

2. Clear the clutter! Elluminate! WebCT! Your interfaces don’t make sense anymore.

3. Three is a magic number. Three clicks. 1. Start/Record/Edit. 2. Stop/Save. 3. Upload/View/Publish.

Keeping on top of your library materials

Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to log into your library account to see if your materials are coming due (or past due)? I’ve been using a great little application called Library Books that links to my library’s catalogue and downloads the list of books I have checked out. This means I never have to log into the library system to check on the status of my materials: an unobtrusive little icon up in the menu bar notifies me. (In this image, I have three library books checked out. To see the titles, authors and due dates, I just click on the icon, and a little window appears, showing me all this info. When a book is nearly due, the little black star turns red.)


Library Books supports tons of libraries around the world. Unfortunately, it’s for Mac only. Pity. If you know of a PC variant, please let me know.

I am always deeply impressed by things that just work. Harold Chu’s Library Books is one of those things.