Innovative Knowledge-Practice Networks

Course-level innovation (Part II).

March 31, 2015

In the first part of this post, we reviewed the concept of faculty emotional ownership in an innovative teaching community as a way to reduce Not-Invented-Here obstacles to scaling up effective teaching practices for student success. In this follow-up, we’re going to focus on emerging developments that are centered on course-related collaborations. That usually involves some kind of repository of shared course resources, but it’s important to see the repository as a tool for supporting the collaboration (not the other way round, where the shared course is seen as the targeted result and the collaboration is just there to support it).  

The natural connection point with current professional teaching colleagues is at the course level. Faculty members are assigned to design courses, to teach courses, to assess student experience in courses, etc. Individual faculty may work to improve the learning experience at the topic level that is not normally an explicit part of their workload assignment. Work at the level of the whole curriculum may be assigned as a periodic activity, but we are looking for faculty engagement that can be ongoing over time and yet at any moment is bounded to a focal area matching what they are working on day-to-day. 

(Yes, this will look different if we go beyond the course model toward more competency-based education – but a similar case can then be made for a different structure with equivalent processes, roles and platforms. Another recent example, going beyond the course to rethinking larger curricula, is the AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives working across institutions to diffuse innovations “through networked community groups of faculty” rather then ““from the project center to individual faculty”.)

Earlier faculty communities along this line have been shown to increase the take-up of high quality resources and their continuing adaptation and improvement. One ongoing example is the UC Davis STEMWiki Hyperlibrary; you can access some of the research on impacts here.  You can also see a similar flavor in an Open Textbook Sprint, where a team of faculty creates an open textbook in an on-site session over a few (full!) days from materials they have gathered or created beforehand.  The key to building emotional ownership back in their home departments is to include broad interactions in the department about what ‘we’ want in ‘our’ textbook as part of the preparatory activities, and to acknowledge/reference those contributions in the resulting open textbook (or its local adaptation).

Emerging infrastructures for course-level professional collaborations
Advancing collective teaching practice within a local department through engagement with these collaborations will require a strong support infrastructure: any new practices we want to introduce have to be time-efficient, professionally energizing, and personally validating for faculty. We also need to ensure it is easy and effective for faculty to engage in an ongoing two-way flow of contribution: not just downloading resources but also being welcomed into the community and facilitated in providing feedback, ideas, questions or resources of their own. Otherwise the emotional ownership we want will be limited, and our faculty will be only semi-connected as consumers rather than fully connected as community members. 

All this implies support at several levels, e.g., cultural, procedural and practical. Part I of this post gave a few examples of current developments in providing cultural and procedural support for faculty to engage with emerging knowledge-practice networks. The particular question we want to explore more in this follow-up is a practical one: how can we create a more natural flow between the teaching work faculty currently undertake (in designing, evaluating and improving student learning experiences) and the new engagements we want them to develop with in their larger professional teaching communities? 

The good news is that infrastructures to enable such interactions with wider discipline communities for professional teaching are beginning to emerge ‒ and now need to be nurtured, tested, and extended.  As an example of the emerging innovations that take these ideas further, the development of open course frameworks is intended to provide an infrastructure for knowledge sharing and resource adaptation: the faculty community engages around a shared course resource base that can be Reused, Revised, Remixed, Redistributed and Retained.  The base artifacts consist of a set of shared learning activities and resources for learning in a topic area, along with module and course designs using and adapting the shared resources for different contexts.

An extension of this idea promises to go further: a course ecosystem is intended to contain the elements of an open course framework community while also addressing the larger issues of changes in policy and practices, “including how best to provide incentives and rewards for faculty who contribute to a multi-institutional project, how to promote a culture of innovation within departments, and how to structure institutional investments to take full advantage of present and future technology.” The Personalized Learning Consortium program of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities has used this phrase in describing some of the challenges to be addressed by institutions and faculty as they explore adaptive learning technologies and ways improve learner mastery of course content.

The additional value of the emerging infrastructures comes from their potential to seamlessly combine two kinds of interactions:

  • faculty members ‒ and other educators ‒  engaging in two-way interactions with course resources for use in their day-to-day work, in all the ”5 R’s” listed above; and
  • interactions amongst the network members working on and with those objects, and the resulting collaborative relationships and ongoing knowledge exchange that develops over time.

Moving toward knowledge-practice networks to scale up innovations in teaching
What’s particularly encouraging in this new work is the enhanced knowledge practices and knowledge sharing infrastructure which are beginning to develop around these open course frameworks and ecosystems, which has the potential to be a major ‘generational change’ in faculty interactions around shared knowledge artifacts. We’ve seen this before in the shift in emphasis from shared learning objects to open educational resources, which increased the unit scale while also engaging a broader professional community. What the new developments are adding is a wider focus on the supporting infrastructure for such collaborations, including enriched practices, platforms and policies.  

The emerging collaborations have the properties of innovative knowledge-practice networks:

  • They are fluid networks of practice that are relevant to a faculty member’s current work assignments, within longer-term communities of practice that provide professional identity and role expectations. The informal and weak connections that typify networks of practice enrich more localized communities of practice with external knowledge, practice and insight.
  • From an institutional perspective, these networks are a support system for adapting and scaling up innovative teaching. This creates the case for institutional support (beyond the personal learning networks that faculty might naturally form with like-minded colleagues).
  • Potentially, the collaborations can become innovative knowledge-practice networks, as catalysts for new knowledge practices aimed at solving emergent problems and disciplined engagement with innovation. As with scholarly research networks, in their fullest realization these collaborations can promote an ethos for deliberate reinvention of prevailing practices and constant working at the edge of competence (both personal and collective).

Moving beyond open educational resources to open educational practices
These developments suggest that we may be seeing a new generational shift, beyond open educational resources to open educational practices. This larger emphasis is concerned with how learning and teaching practices need to accommodate more open approaches to knowledge sharing. The scope of Open Educational Practices continues to evolve rapidly, including concepts such as open pedagogies to document the rationale behind designs for learning, open exchange of teaching expertise, open scholarship to extend our knowledge of teaching and learning and open technologies to facilitate collaboration around a more open education system.

Finally, let’s return to the point we made in the first part of this post about our teaching and learning environments becoming exemplars of the kinds of organizations we want our students to join, lead and found –organizations characterized by knowledge-intensive practices which create high value and enduring impact. In that context, the emergence of open educational practices is an exemplar of the way contemporary  organizations are moving beyond individual Islands of Innovation to engaging in ongoing processes for Open Innovation, Distributed Innovation, and Collaborative Innovation Networks, etc. That can create opportunities for our students to see us as teachers engaged with both the benefits and the challenges of collaborative innovation, and to engage with us as innovation partners. Any institution that wants to highlight its development of innovation capabilities for students would do well to begin thinking about how its teaching and learning culture and environment can become an exemplar of those capabilities.

Thomas Carey is a Research Professor at San Diego State University, a Visiting Senior Scholar in the Institute for Innovation and Scholarship in Teaching and Learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and a former Associate Vice-President of Learning Resources and Innovation at the University of Waterloo. Some of the analysis above on Open Innovation Networks is adapted from research for the Council of Ontario Universities.


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