Title

The Case Against Learning Innovation

Frankly, it’s a little disquieting you would let your ideals blind you to reality.

February 4, 2019
 
 

Why might it be a mistake for a university to prioritize learning innovation?

Making an argument against learning innovation requires that we first define what learning innovation is.  The challenge is that everyone within and without of higher education seems to define learning innovation in whichever way will support their newest project or initiative.

The definition of learning innovation that I propose has three parts:

  • Learning innovations go beyond incremental advances, offering the potential for discontinuous improvements.
  • The outcomes of the learning innovation are not known, and risks of failure are high.​
  • Learning innovation requires additional institutional investment, at least in the early stages.

We need a good acronym to describe learning innovation.  Thinking out loud here:

DUI:  (pronounced like driving while drunk) - Discontinuous, Unknown, and Investment.

Or how about:

SUR: (pronounced sure) - for Strategic, Unknown, and Resources

Okay, whatever acronym we figure out - what do you think of this three-part definition for learning innovation?

If we can agree for now on definitions, then what is the case against learning innovation?

Let’s unpack each part of the learning innovation definition to see if we can pick it apart.

Learning innovations go beyond incremental advances, offering the potential for discontinuous improvements.

I can think of a couple of arguments for prioritizing actions that may result in discontinuous change.  The first is that a focus on big changes negates the true power of incremental improvements over time.  There is radical potential in continuous improvement.  If the goal is to advance student learning, then the best method we have is to continuously make small but measurable advances (in pedagogy, in classroom design, in learning tools, in learning analytics, in educator development, etc. etc.) that will ultimately result in big leaps.

The second argument against a focus on discontinuous change is that you might end up doing more harm than good. The law of unintended consequences has come back to bite many of an education reformer.  The entire set of policies in the public K-12 world under the banner of No Child Left Behind is an example of how a well-intentioned big change - to expose gaps in achievement with data - can have disastrous consequences.

The outcomes of the learning innovation are not known, and risks of failure are high.

Higher education is not a dot-com startup.  We can’t just move fast and break things. There are real people - our students and their families and our communities - who will suffer if we screw things up. Higher ed might be risk-averse.  But we have good reasons. If we fail, people get hurt.

Given how hard it is nowadays to ensure even incremental advances in teaching and learning, why would we want to put time and resources and attention into something that has a good chance of failing?  Things are hard enough with the demographic headwinds, cost disease, new competitors, and diminished public funding that every school must face.  Jumping into teaching and learning projects that have a good chance of not working is a luxury that we can’t afford.

Learning innovation requires additional institutional investment, at least in the early stages.

The idea of learning innovation is that it is a partnership between the educator (the professor) and the school.  This is because doing new big things to advance learning requires resources beyond what are available to faculty.  Learning innovation often requires investments in the environments (physical and digital) in which teaching and learning occurs.  Any effort to bring about discontinuous improvements in student learning will likely require that professors work with a team of non-faculty educators, such as instructional designers and librarians and media educators and maybe assessment professionals.

To paraphrase Lin-Manual Miranda as Hamilton in the Cabinet Battle #2, "You must be out of your Goddamn mind if you think….” that the provost is going to prioritize learning innovation.  Sure, the provost will back learning advancements when its clear that there is a clear plan, faculty buy-in, and a model for sustainable funding.  But it is a little disquieting that you would let your ideals blind you to the reality.  Every dollar needs to be devoted to efforts and initiatives that will have a measurable, or at least strong likelihood, of supporting the institutional mission towards resilience and distinctiveness.

How would you make a case against learning innovation?

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