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For most of the past 2500 years innovation was understood with a modifier: political innovation, social innovation, technological innovation, etc. The concept of innovation in general is, more than any other in the 21st Century, the dominant ideology behind educational policy and praxis change. Schools, departments, colleges, universities and governing agencies want innovative courses and programs, innovators on their faculty and within their student population, and innovativeness in their structures and operations.  As a conduit for sharing hope for the future, this is not only powerful but inspirational. However,  as a driving force of operations and strategic initiatives, innovation is a problematic concept. Too often innovation is utilized as a hooray word that sells change, while practices in the name of innovation only stabilize the inequalities of the status quo. Thus, it becomes imperative for education to have its own definition of innovation.

In 1959, famed British economist William Beveridge addressed the United Kingdom House of Lords on the topic of commute transportation. Since the end of World War I, Beveridge noted, innovations in transport at the personal (automobile) and group (buses, subways) levels had been extraordinary: more efficient modes at faster speeds with greater load potential. Yet over the same 35 years, the average commute time for British workers had increased three-fold to the point that every week the average Briton was spending a full work day in their commute. This was because, as Beveridge pointed out, the growth of industry and commerce in the UK over the same period of time had not been evenly distributed for the benefit of society, but consolidated for the growth of corporations and organizations. Transportation innovations were not effective because the problem was systemic, and Beveridge was quick to provide the ironic result: “Revolutionary progress in means of travel is not being used to make shorter travel but to make more travel.”

Part of the problem around innovation discussions is a difficulty in securing a definition of innovation for academia.  Up until the late 20th Century, when people used the term innovation it was grounded in a conceptual framework.  This could be explicit, such as 19th Century uses of social innovation among socialists in post-revolution France, or implicit, such as 16th Century uses of innovation where the term was an absolute pejorative against what the Church of England saw as religious novelties. It was Christopher Freeman’s 1974 book The Economics of Industrial Innovation that began the shift away from modified uses of innovation toward an all-encompassing idea of innovation as technology brought to solve the problems of a society. With the word removed from historical and cultural contexts, innovation has seen a rapid rise in usage to the point it’s used everywhere, from discussing multinational trade agreements to changes in breakfast cereal.  45 years after Christopher Freeman, it is rare to see innovation attached to a descriptor, and with that it is rare for the term to have any weight or meaning beyond hyperbole.

The rise of innovation discourse comes at a time when there are at least three standard definitions of innovation.  The first and likely most well-known is derived from the work of economist Joseph Schumpeter, where innovation is the introduction of a new product to a society or marketplace. This is the framework upon which Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction unfolds, today discussed in terms of Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation. The second is from sociologist Everett Rogers who defined innovation as the introduction of a new process to a society or marketplace. Rogers’ book Diffusion of Innovations chronicles numerous case-studies of bringing new ideas and ways of doing to populations, and the various obstacles and opportunities in adoption. The most recent definition is from educator George Couros, who defines innovation as a mindset, or a way of thinking that perpetuates new and better things for a society or marketplace. Without the modifiers, innovation no longer needs to relate even to a particular product or process, it can be a self-help remedy for people too.

There are similarities in these definitions: they all rely on developing or implementing something new, they all hinge on change, but more than anything they all depend on a select few instituting the change of a great many.  From this perspective the importance of power to today’s innovation is unmistakable, as is the relationship between the power behind innovation and the perpetuation of the status quo. This is where an older definition of innovation can help us conceptualize where we want to see academic innovation.  It was Norwegian American economist Thorstein Veblen who first defined innovation in production terms, but he did so by grounding innovation in the accomplishments of a collective rather than creative achievements of individual people or organizations.

For Veblen, as for William Beveridge, entrepreneurs were not providing society any worthwhile benefit unless their work was engaged within a community of operation. Innovation happened when production and processes related to the instrumental needs of societies, a service to the imperatives of citizen life. When entrepreneurs instead acted in the interests of their personal improvement or organizational sustainability, the result was a society focused on consumption and production over development and communal happiness.

What definition of innovation are we using when we talk about academic innovation?  Some people talk about innovation in terms of educational technology, scalability and efficiency through technological means. This is the innovation of third-party solutions, of “Like Netflix, but for Education,” and of technology as a homogenizing agent on the education experience.  And this is certainly a type of innovation, an innovation for which society has a contextual understanding.  But this sort of innovation is rarely the innovation academic faculty, staff and students consider when imagining the future of teaching and learning. Innovation in that space is imagined as the creation and application of an education landscape grounded in access, equity and social justice, not waiting for an outside company to build a structure sold as inclusive but not built to do more than scale existing practice.

What if academic innovation was built upon the research and theory of our field, incorporating social constructivist, constructionist and activity theory?  The conversations about how we develop education, how we teach, how we engage learning, and how we broaden our scope to our greater communities would be rooted in our particular communities rather than demarcated by powerful voices outside our spaces.  Innovation would happen not because someone needs to solve our problems but because we see opportunities for continued improvement, for repair, for refinement, for revolution, and for sustainability.  Innovation would be owned by each learning environment, and the shared knowledge of ownership would be more than enough commonality for innovation studies and practices to be disseminated to other learning environments. 

A working definition, grounded in both innovation history and education theory, can help bridge the chasm between what education has the potential to do and the role society sees for education. I propose that academic innovation is the development of new manners of knowledge creation and collaboration for an environment.  As learning happens best in social situations with peers on a similar learning journey as well as access to experts, academic innovations would be community endeavors. They would engage the wide and varied skills and expertise of academic environments to conceptualize, develop, implement and assess the change and align it to the needs of the environment.  Academic innovation would harness its strength as a creator of knowledge to build the knowledge spaces of the future rather than outsourcing construction.

What would innovations look like built from this definition? They would engage the distributed networks of their environments to affect needed development in their spaces. Teaching and learning developed to better harness knowledge in the classroom could turn into traditional research, but it also could be an example of emergent research of integration, teaching and learning or engagement, research supported as part of promotion and review for faculty.  Non-teaching and learning work would be integral to the development of the institution, rather than an assortment of incidental expectations requiring free labor. Technology here would not be a promise from an outside source, but a collaboration with the community to enhance, scaffold and amplify the impact of education. These innovations could be products, they could be processes, they could be built from creative brainstorming, but they would all be rooted directly in the needs of the community, bottom-up initiatives supported by top-down policy rather than top-down initiatives implemented by bottom-up staffing.  Within the framework of this definition, education can stop trying to turn a classroom into a self-driving car. Instead, it can harness its own expertise and continue forward towards what has been its goal since the Enlightenment: developing and diffusing knowledge for the betterment of all people.

Dr. Rolin Moe is director of academic innovation and assistant professor at Seattle Pacific University.

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