Innovation in Higher Education. Wait, what?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! This week I want to share with you some of my thoughts on innovation in Higher Education. This has been brewing inside my head for a while now, and I thought I’d put it out there hoping to stir some discussions, as I feel this is a very important topic, now more than ever, after more than two “odd” years of pandemic. Besides, “innovation is Higher Education” is part of my job title, and I have been asked, more than once, to elaborate on it. So, here we go. Looking forward to your thoughts and comments!
What’s the problem with innovation?
Innovation has become such a buzzword. It can mean anything or nothing at all. It’s often a “container” for things we want to showcase and impress with. When we hear “innovation” we often think we need to reinvent the wheel, to come up with something that has an immediate wow factor. This tends to create great expectations, that Higher Education institutions often can’t meet. And that’s only part of the problem.
What I find most problematic these days is that innovation is mostly referred to in conjunction to the latest shiny technology (think AI, VR). Don’t get me wrong, when used in the right context, these immersive forms of technology can definitely enhance the learning experience. But, while they are the most often showcased, they are far from being the only things that qualify as “innovation”; they tend to be expensive (still), difficult to scale up and transfer between different contexts and learning goals.
And what is our motivation to innovate anyway? Funny, we talk a lot about innovation, but most discussions stay at a superficial level and we seldom address- or even ask ourselves this core question. Is it because we want change? Because we feel we need change? To respond to specific needs we identified? To justify asking for money in grant applications? To impress …? (fill in the gap here with: boss, colleagues, grant-giver, other institutions, etc)
And once we have actually come up with a great idea, have put it into practice, have seen that it does work- then what? Will the institution support it beyond the initial financing or project life? Not everyone is that lucky. Or not always, at least. Sustainable innovation practices in academia are few and far between. Unfortunately.
But maybe I am wrong, and maybe everyone is innovating. Somewhere. And here is another problem: pockets of innovation exist, and luckily have always existed. But they often exist in parallel worlds, even when they happen inside the same institution. We don’t hear about what others do, and thus are likely to perpetually reinvent the wheel, when we could collaborate, pooling our brains and resources together to think big. Or at least bigger.
I don’t have immediate solutions to these problems (obviously). But I hope that by putting them on the table, I can at least provide us with the space to reflect on where we are right now in our institutions and brainstorm some ideas for moving further.
Let’s bust some myths first:
Innovation is not a “one off” act. It’s all about creating a culture of innovation; it starts with working towards a common understanding of what innovation means. This needs to be very specific to the context and it goes hand in hand with identifying precise needs to be addressed. It’s hard to get innovation right the first time around, so we’ll need to take risks and keep trying when (not if) we fail. This implies re-evaluating our attitudes towards failure and creating a safe space to learn from it, as the basis of innovative practice.
Innovation is not synonym with technology. Technology can be of course part of it- and now after the pandemic this is almost uncontested. But innovation is about meaningfully embedding technology in what we do, be it teaching, learning or research. It is about intentionally choosing the right technology for the right purpose (and not because it’s fashionable).
Innovation doesn’t need to be disruptive. Actually, I think it’s more sustainable if it’s not. By consciously building on what we have, and sometimes taking the slower, incremental path, we can bring more value to the organisation and everyone involved in it.
And what IS innovation, then?
In my view:
Innovation is connecting people, helping them to collaborate and learn effectively. This can take many shapes, from faculty co-designing curses and (why not?) programmes, ideally also involving students in the process, to faculty, educational developers and instructional designers working together as a team to create rich learning experiences. It’s all about nurturing learning communities and communities of practice.
Innovation is connecting ideas and solutions. Sometimes it’s a matter of connecting the dots and creating a narrative behind already existing- or budding- innovative practices (the "pockets of innovation” I referred to above). Think cross-institutional, inter-disciplinary initiatives, collaborating beyond silos, working with various partners, inside and outside the institution.
Innovation is curating existing research and different forms of knowledge. Looking into what others have done and at the findings of their studies can be a great source of inspiration. It can help us identify gaps but also provide us with ideas that we could adapt to our local context. For those still doubting: yes, I think that is actually innovation.
Innovation is evidence-based teaching practice and evidence based faculty development. What I am talking about here is not only a reinforced link between research and teaching but also a scholarly/ inquiry-based approach to teaching: being curious about what is happening in the classroom and invested in our students’ success.
Innovation is opening up educational policies and practices. Universities are part of a broader ecosystem, even if sometimes they are still acting like the infamous ivory towers. So it’s crucial to remind ourselves about this societal role and fight for, well, what should be the normal state of affairs: fair and equitable access to resources and practices that originate in our institutions.
Innovation is humanising the classroom. It’s seeing and treating our students as “whole persons”, not limited to their role as students. And letting them see us as whole persons too. Innovation can often mean vulnerability. The pandemic has open the gate for this, so let’s be mindful not to close it prematurely in our drive to go back to “normal”.
An innovative university is a genuine learning organisation. I’m going to have us zoom out for this last one. It’s easy to see innovation like “that one thing I tried in my class” or “that one collaboration I had”. But we should not miss the holistic aspect of innovation, especially in the context of such complex organisations like universities. Ideally, an innovative mindset permeates the entire institution, at all its levels. And yes, if you are wondering, I believe innovation means having inclusive and equitable HR practices and well thought through career paths with various professional development opportunities embedded.
Educational innovation projects in Dutch higher education: bottom-up contextual coping to deal with organizational challenges- an article by Martine Schophuizen & Marco Kalz looking into how project leaders of innovation projects in Dutch higher education institutions are coping with organizational challenges;
A Twitter thread from a few months ago that started to make me think about the issue in a more articulate way. Really interesting contributions, as ever!