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Higher ed people are deeply fatigued from hearing too much innovation talk. The concept of innovation has lost most of its meaning through overuse.

When innovation is discussed, it is often as a hammer to pound “incumbent” institutions for not understanding that they must “disrupt themselves” or die.

Can innovation be reclaimed? Is it possible to think of innovation through the lens of advancing learning?

My definition of learning innovation is institutional and organizational in scale.

A college or university serious about innovation will prioritize investments in making non-incremental advances in student learning.

A commitment to learning innovation can take many forms. It may be investing in a center for teaching and learning (CTL) to provide faculty with training, mentoring, and resources. Or a commitment to learning innovation may manifest in the recruitment of instructional designers to collaborate with faculty.

A focus on institutional learning innovation may involve the decision that all new classroom spaces and renovations will result in active learning spaces, with flat floors and moveable furniture.  Or it may revolve around an initiative to embed academic librarians with professors throughout the course development, teaching, and redesign process.

There are so many examples of learning innovation initiatives that they are impossible to enumerate. I would bet that there are many institutional learning innovation efforts currently underway at your school.

What all learning innovation efforts have in common is that they are thought of as strategic for the institution, they operate on a scale that requires some institutional/organizational support, and that the outcomes may not be known.

Learning innovation efforts are disciplined experiments. They have a research and development (R&D) component.  They are committed to scaling advances across the institution, and to moving from pilot projects to regular operations.

One example comes from the world of online learning. On its own, an online learning program is not all that innovative.  What is innovative is when the school tries to figure out how to bring the lessons, methods, techniques, and resources from online courses to residential courses.

MOOCs are not innovative. What would be innovative is to leverage what is learned from MOOCs to improve traditional online and residential courses.

This effort may take the form of a commitment to redesigning large enrollment courses around the principles of learning science, or an effort to introduce backward course design to introductory courses.

Learning innovation initiatives take resources.  Learning innovation projects take people.  They require a long-term commitment on the part of the school to experiment, learn, and adapt.

All learning innovation efforts carry with them a degree of risk. If you are committed to making big advances in student learning outcomes, then some things will go wrong.  Some disciplined experiments will fail.  There needs to be space carved out to try new things.

How is the learning innovation community different from other educator communities of practice?

I’d say the big difference is in the unit of analysis for learning innovation initiatives is the institution, as opposed to the individual learner.

Learning innovation takes a population view when measuring outcomes. The questions asked are around aggregated student learning outcomes, as opposed to individual learning stories.

Some learning outcomes can be quantified. Others are more difficult to capture with numbers and statistics.

Questions that someone working in institutional learning innovation might ask would include:

  • How do learning innovation initiatives impact persistence in STEM majors?
  • Do the investments in advancing learning result in stronger retention, less attrition, and faster times to graduation?
  • Are teaching methods aligned with the research on learning?
  • To what degree and impact are educators at the school contributing to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL)?
  • Is the institution able to provide education for groups that were previously underserved?
  • Are there online and low-residency programs that are providing an education at the quality that has been achieved in residential programs?
  • Do faculty believe that their efforts to advance student learning are supported, recognized, and adequately resourced?
  • Are there areas when it comes to teaching and learning where the school is carving out a leadership position?
  • Can larger enrollment courses be made to feel small?
  • Is it possible to drive down the cost of credentialing through developing platforms and assessment methods that enable personalization at scale?
  • How can a school shift more resources into faculty to achieve a relational model of teaching and learning, while moving dollars and people away from services that are commoditized?
  • What steps can be taken so that faculty are making data-informed decisions in their teaching and advising?

Underlying an institutional approach to learning innovation is the necessity that any initiative must be economically sustainable. No innovation effort will last on soft money.

Getting resources for pilot projects is usually much easier than transitioning the new practices to the normal operations of the school. Learning innovations that do not change how the institution works are ultimately useless. Learning innovation initiatives must be aligned with the strategic goals of the institution.

The idea that it is possible to make non-incremental advances in student learning is emerging as a priority at many schools. The understanding that these advances in student learning will not come without sustained institutional investments that result in organizational changes is also beginning to emerge.

What I worry about is that institutional efforts to catalyze learning innovation will be seen by professors as antithetical to their interests. This is understandable, as most of the talk of “disruptive innovation” in higher education has taken the form of attacks against faculty.

A true understanding of learning innovation puts educator at the center of the work. Innovations that do not promote the ability of the professor to form a relationship with the learner, to mentor and support the student, will fail to make significant gains in advancing student learning.

Any education model that does not involve investing in professors will prove self-defeating for institutions of higher learning. If teaching is commoditized, then students will flock to the lowest cost provider. Universities should avoid this race to the bottom.

What do you think of when you think of learning innovation?

What other questions might someone interested in higher ed learning innovation ask?

How can those of us who work at the organizational or institutional level to advance student learning make common cause with faculty and other educators?

Where does the learning innovation community of practice come together?

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