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.

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Some ideas for creating a culture of innovation

In my last post I mentioned the importance of the idea of third spaces in creating a culture of innovation and in removing barriers to innovation.  I focused solely on the T & L centre as an obvious starting point for a third space or facilitative boundary object, partly because I really wasn’t in the mood to get into how IT departments, steering committees, etc can be so inhibitive, even if they try to be on board with innovation.  I find that often these inhibitive structures don’t really know how to be facilitative of innovation, and like T & L centres need some transformation.  As the new Director/VP of innovation you can’t always dismantle these structures, or blow them apart and start over, so what can you do to keep innovation from devolving to a project (see first post as to why innovation shouldn’t be a project) that only you care about?

I see this as a series of steps with various inherent mechanisms.  Some of these might seem to be a bit obvious, so bear with me.

Talk to people and find the innovation on the fringes:  Chances are there are some people in your institution doing some really interesting, innovative stuff that not many people know about.  Find out why that is, how they are getting stuff done, and what is getting in the way.  Then figure out how you will be able to help them move from the fringes to key examples of people doing great things that the institution supports.  You might also find out  (as I did on more than one occasion) that something that they are doing that wasn’t on your innovation radar should be a key initiative.

Support the people who want to do some great stuff, but have no idea how to get going or get the support they need. Higher ed by design is full of smart, creative people who want to do cool things.  But sometimes the smallest things become barriers to getting them to implement their ideas.  For example, I’ve come across a situation where a faculty member’s amazing idea required purchasing a 500$ flip camera that he couldn’t get his department to buy.  His idea was simple, cheap, and would have had a great effect on student learning. Making sure you have some budget for supporting people on the cheap is a great way to get some quick wins and momentum – in the first year we did this we were able to support 5 or so projects with less than $3000, and these projects became highly showcased and lead to other great developments.

Don’t kill the innovators with process:  In our T & L Centre we have an innovation pilots initiative (see above) where people with ideas can access money and/or expertise support in order to try out their idea.  This is available at any time of the year…there are no calls for proposals, blessings by committees, or long discussions about what ifs.  We don’t require success, in fact we let them know that they are allowed to fail.  But since it’s not a free for all, we have a one page project plan that is filled out. Knowing that this is a barrier for people with little time, we ask them to come to a one hour meeting with us where they tell us verbally what they want to do and what they need from us, and we fill out the form for them in the meeting.  Our one pager covers the following:

Strategic Goals Addressed – what Academic plan, strategic plan or ed tech plan does the project align with

Purpose of the pilot—what is the problem/s you are trying to solve?

How are you planning on doing it?

Equipment/people needs

Evaluation:  How you will know if it is successful/not successful?

Timeline

We find that this process becomes a collaborative conversation between the people with the idea and the people that can support it, and sets the right tone for the relationship and the project.  We want people to feel empowered by the step they’ve taken rather than intimidate them with “how are you going to do this, what if XYZ happens…”

Pilots are your friend:  At every institution I’ve worked with, small innovative ideas have a habit of becoming complexified when certain stakeholders throw the but what ifs, the we can’t becauses, and the but we don’t haves.  Often this is a fear driven reaction to culture where unknowns are viewed as a risk.  To counter this, I’ve had good success with using pilots as a sort of boundary object that is introduced as a way to alleviate fear of failure.  Pilots by definition are ways of trying things on and figuring out whether an idea is worth pursuing through more formal channels, once a good assessment is made of the value and potential to the institution.  I like to point out that they are actually a low risk way of innovating in that they give the institution time to properly assess and learn about whatever is being implemented.

The other nice thing about pilots is that as Director/VP of Innovation you probably have a good idea of some must-have tool/innovation that you want to introduce to the institution, but don’t quite yet have the buy-in.  You can keep a tool/innovation in pilot until it has enough momentum and buy-in to transition it successfully to being institutionally supported.  Basically, once it becomes indispensable to the institution (WordPress in our case) you have plenty of examples to demonstrate your case without trying to convince people why the tool is needed.  Keep in mind that the key with this whole approach is that you need to have the authority to initiate and support pilots.  Finally, pilots are useful in showing that you actually do have a process and guidelines for introducing innovation to your institution – this is important because you don’t want people to think that you are jumping on any new shiny thing without having thought about it, or that you are shoving your favourite pet technologies/innovation onto the backs of already busy people.

Removing barriers to innovation – the teaching and learning centre and third spaces

In my last 2 posts ( 7 Rules About Innovation ; First Steps in Creating a Culture of Innovation;   I said I’d get to the topic of removing barriers to innovation in an institution. I’m a bit academic about this topic, since I feel like this stage requires some sort of framework that gives your actions some method to the madness.  This is also one area where I think senior leadership would do well to be a bit more academic outside of standard leadership literature and practices.  But I digress…

Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory is probably the most well known and cited tome on innovation, and I’ve found that senior admin really grasp this idea of diffusion and innovation, so it’s a good one to have in your back pocket. But it doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty of what is happening in an organization at a macro level to inhibit or foster innovation, and what to do about it.  I’m an activity theorist at heart, so I tend to structure my method to madness around a  version of Star and Griesemer’s idea of boundary objects.  I think of boundary objects as organizational artefacts – people, committees, money, positions, policies, procedures – that can be inhibitive or facilitative.  They sit at the boundary of many spheres of activity, not just your own innovation agenda, and as Director/VP/President of Innovation you probably have to create some new boundary objects too.  The key is understanding which ones are important to the innovation vision that you have proposed (and has been endorsed) so that you can move ahead with your plans.

There are some obvious first places to examine in your institution and assess whether they are facilitating innovation or inhibiting it.  The most obvious place to start is the teaching and learning centre.

Teaching and Learning Centres: Is your T&L centre facilitative or inhibitive?  T & L Centres in my experience are a bit of an innovation paradox, in that they are well positioned to be an innovation hub for the institution but often need to be reinvented and transformed in order to do this.  This is especially the case with well-established T & L Centres that have become highly invested and good at doing one or two things (curriculum development, faculty development)  at the expense of others.   While the role of T&L centres is generally to enhance teaching and learning at the institution, my view is that given that these Centres are often centrally funded, ultimately their role is to make the lives of teaching and learning staff easier.  As with ‘innovation’ , this means different things to different people.  The VP Academic might very well see the T & L centre’s priority to increase the quality of teaching at the institution, but is this the Dean’s immediate priority? The Dean’s priority might be to have a simpler way of managing curriculum in its Faculty.  The faculty member might just want some support on the online course environment that they’ve been asked to teach.  Within this context, innovation competes with numerous other priorities.

If this is the case at your institution,  then I like the idea of invoking (in academic terms again) a third space* – a sort of fail safe zone or zones for innovation and transformation that is separate yet connected to the T & L Centre.  Plenty of institutions do this, and sometimes it can look like off-the-side-of-the-desk rogue activity, or unofficial clusters of activity, but I think it stands a better chance of succeeding if it has been endorsed and supported by the senior admin and the budget, rather than being an under-the-radar secret.

In order for these third spaces to work, they need to consider other barriers to innovation:  time, money, people, and bureaucracy.  This could be a whole other post, but simply put, if you innovation space requires a lot of effort to access the equipment, money, people, then it’s not really helping anybody.  This might be stating the obvious, but here are a couple of examples I’ve seen:

  1.  innovation equipment locked up in a separate room 3 or 4 buildings over from the teaching site.  Only the most keen and confident instructor will bother getting to campus early to go and grab the equipment and set it up.
  2. innovation funding processes that require filling out long, elaborate forms, that then have to be endorsed by multiple committees over a several month process.  Faculty are busy, and if it takes more hours to get the money than to use the money then there’s little ROI for them.  Also, if they have an idea they want to implement, it’s usually time sensitive.  This process also doesn’t support the notion that innovation is messy and sometimes fails.
  3. innovation that has to fit into existing systems, technologies, world views. Eg. an e-portfolio project that has to use the institutionally endorsed (read: expensive) e-portfolio tool.   This is a tricky one. On the one hand supporting innovation means that it should support the innovation vision of the institution (see second post on this) and it’s not a free for all.  But on the other hand, you have to know where you can let it go and challenge existing thoughts on this…for example, does it really have to tie into the institutional LMS, SIS, policy XYZ?  For me, third spaces should challenge the status quo where appropriate, otherwise it’s not really innovation.

Institutions often get into trouble with #3, because they’ve overly invested in certain technologies and want to see a measurable ROI, have created overly inhibitive structures (steering committees, policies), or lack vision and leadership on innovation.  Which unfortunately means that if you’re in a senior position with innovation as part of your job title/portfolio, and you don’t have the means or senior support to remove the barriers, then you’ve got a really tough job ahead of you.

*(Guiterrez, 1999, but nicely summarized here.)

 

First steps in Creating a culture of innovation in higher education – Figuring out what innovation will mean

In my last post I outlined Tannis’ 7 rules on innovation.  I said that the next post would be about removing barriers to innovation, but that’s actually jumping the gun a bit.  If you’ve just landed a job with innovation in your job title, the first steps are figuring out what your institution means when they say they want innovation.

  1. Find out what people at your institution care about when they say they want innovation.  This should be obvious, but chances are different stakeholders (the Deans, the President, the CIO, the faculty) all have different ideas as to what is innovation and what they want.  Innovation is a relative construct, and within an institution there will be small, medium, and large understandings as to what will constitute innovation.  Rather than impose your view, you will need to work with their’s, but without losing sight of where you think the institution needs to go, of course. This requires doing a good job of #2.
  2. Develop a clear vision for innovation based on what you learn about the institution.  Articulating a vision for innovation is a key step in making sure that the path that emerges is meaningful and relevant to the institution.  For example, there is a temptation to jump on the latest and greatest ed tech buzz (eg. mobile learning, e-portfolios) and roll it out as an institutional must-do innovation. But if mobile learning or e-portfolios makes no sense at your institution because of the types of programs, students, professions etc, don’t do it.  This doesn’t mean that you have to abandon it completely – this leads us to #3.
  3. Distinguish between institutional innovation and program level innovation initiatives.   In my last post I cautioned against flagship innovation initiatives, which are often rolled out and positioned as institutional must-do projects.  Flagship initiatives aren’t necessarily bad, but you will want to make sure that you are sensitive to innovation initiatives that might only make sense to one or two programs.  For example, moving all your history students to a tablet program probably doesn’t make any sense, but for your medical program it might be a no-brainer.  Program level initiatives also have the advantage of snowballing into other programs in more of a grassroots way, which is good for buy-in.
  4. Look for opportunities for convergence of smaller initiatives.  The method to the madness with flagship initiatives is that you are introducing a big, broad bucket of options that faculties will be able to identify with.  The risk with this approach is that it is a) too big of a bucket for faculty to see how flagship program will solve their immediate problems; and b) so broad that it intimidates or disengages since faculty feel like the learning curve is too big.  I’m a big fan of converging separate, smaller initiatives gradually. For example, a WordPress initiative can converge nicely with a tablet initiative into a bigger bucket called mobile learning, rather than starting with mobile learning and trying to have faculties understand all the options in that bucket.

Next post:  Next steps in Creating a Culture of innovation – Removing Barriers

About those innovation jobs…7 Rules About Innovation

Today was the latest job posting with innovation in the title, and this one is at a VP level.  This seems to be an emerging trend in higher education, suggesting both a desire of institutions to show their commitment to innovation first by including it in their strategic plans, and in addition to that, making sure at least one person in the institution has innovation in their job title.

This isn’t a cranky, cynical post about this trend, but it does seem timely to share some observations about what some of institutional barriers to ed tech innovation are, and what can work in overcoming them.  For credibility sake, I should mention that ed tech innovation has been one of my key areas of responsibility since I was hired 5 years ago. I’ve also worked at 2 other higher ed institutions and paid careful attention to where innovation emerges and where it is stifled.  Because really, that’s what its all about. In the spirit of so many “expert” listicles, here are Tannis’s 7 Rules About Innovation.

 1. Even if the term has become trite, innovation is important in higher ed. I believe this, and obviously institutions do too, seeing has how it is part of so many institutional strategic plans (and now job postings).  I don’t think that institutions need more disrupting  (or MOOCs) for that matter, but I do think that there is a lot of room for some ed tech innovation.

2.  One innovative initiative does not make an innovative institution.    I see flagship initiatives a lot ( think MOOCs, OERs, a tablet program, videoconferencing, active learning) and not only is it an eggs in one basket approach, but it’s difficult to gain momentum if there is only one innovative initiative, since you’re essentially banking on the majority of the institution being a) interested in it and seeing value in it and; b) it succeeding.  This leads to the next point…

3.  Innovation requires an institutional tolerance for a certain amount of failure.  This is why a flagship innovation approach is a bad idea…if you put all your eggs in one basket and it’s not as successful as your marketing and communications department has pumped it up to be, you have few wins to celebrate (and difficulty maintaining momentum)…

4.  Innovation requires momentum.    When innovation is truly happening, it engages everybody and inspires spin offs.  I think of innovation is a snowball that becomes big and then spins off other snowballs.

5.  Innovation is not a project, a policy, or a committee.  Innovation is first and foremost an institutional attitude that needs to be embraced and supported.  Innovation is messy and sometimes isn’t successful.  This makes administrators uncomfortable, from which emerge project plans, policies and steering committees to control what is perceived as risky, chaotic activity.  These efforts lead to what could be called in academic terms “inhibiting boundary objects” or gatekeeping devices that will essentially void any strategic plan or job title change efforts.  But it also doesn’t mean that innovation is a rogue free-for-all that costs institutions buckets of money either. More on that below.

6.  Innovation is not retroactive catch up or large tech projects.  Sometimes institutions mistake their latest enterprise software implementation as innovation, when it’s usually status quo with a new twist.  Just because your latest implementation is costing buckets of money and resources, it doesn’t mean it qualifies as innovation.  In fact, if your efforts are sucking money away from your innovation initiatives, your institution should take a critical view of why that is happening, and for what benefit.  (Sometimes expensive implementations are about taking the path of least resistance, and this is where I think institutions should be looking at whether a more innovative approach could have saved money–think LMS’s, AV vendors, other enterprise software).

7.  Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive.    In fact, if you are fighting the bean counters on the value of innovation when you’ve said that it sometimes fails, and failure is Ok, you will want to minimize the financial risk.  So showing the institution how much you can do with a small pocket of change is a great way to get momentum and buy in.

Next post:  removing those inhibiting boundary objects and creating momentum…or 5 Rules of Creating an Culture of Innovation at your institution. Or whatever.