How Academic Administrators View Innovation

Survey of deans and provosts finds student success is the primary goal -- and technology the dominant method -- of their institutions' experimentation with new approaches.

April 18, 2018
 
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“Innovation” is an emergent buzzword in higher education, and anything that helps shed some light on what campus officials mean when they use the phrase is helpful.

A survey released today by the Online Learning Consortium and the online program management company Learning House asked senior academic administrators -- deans, vice presidents and provosts -- a set of questions about how their institutions define and use innovation. The survey had just a 6 percent response rate (110 respondents from a pool of more than 1,600), with a margin of error of nine percentage points, so take the results with a grain of salt.

The academic leaders overwhelmingly say their main goal in embracing innovation at their institution is to ensure student success (68 percent cited it as one of their top three goals, 47 percent cited it first), followed at a distance by creating new degree programs, decreasing costs, creating alternative credentials and developing new teaching methods, all chosen by about a third of respondents.

The administrators identified teaching and pedagogy as the area of their institution where innovation has been more prominently used (56 percent). Other responses were within nontraditional academic programs (45 percent) and in academic affairs (40 percent).

Asked to what extent innovation at their institution relies on technology, the academic leaders said it was driven overwhelmingly by the implementation of new technology (32 percent) or sometimes using new technologies that require training to implement (56 percent).

That linkage concerns Jill E. Buban, senior director of research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium and an author of the paper. "There's a risk we're running by always labeling innovation as technology," she said. "There are different innovative solutions for different kinds of institutions with different kinds of students: prior learning assessment, competency-based education, better connections with the work force. We can make great strides using technology, but it can't be the only way an institution can innovate."

A large majority of respondents said that innovation is stated as a priority in either their overall institutional strategic plan (55 percent), their academic plan (9 percent) or both plans (29 percent). But only 40 percent of the respondents said their institution had a dedicated budget for innovation, creating a potential disconnect, the report suggests: "If an institution is formally planning goals around innovation, there should be earmarked funds to support these efforts."

How innovative do the academic administrators believe their institutions to be? On the whole, above average: half described their college or university as either "on the leading edge of innovation" (22 percent) or as a "fast follower" ahead of their peers (28 percent). Thirty-two percent said "probably average," and fewer than one in five said either "somewhat slower to innovate" (16 percent) or "way behind" (2 percent).

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