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Processing the HAIL Storm

Thinking about a convening on digital learning and educational R&D.

January 17, 2017
 
 

Last week I participated in a small convening with the wonderfully evocative name of Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm.

The discussion was held under Chatham House Rule, which reads:

"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”. 

This convening was intimate (about 40 or so colleagues from 20 or so institutions), intense (3 days of prototyping, discussions, and talks in 1.5 days time), and collegial (with a diversity of faculty and non-faculty educators representing a good cross-section of publics, privates, for-profits, and systems).

My initial, hesitant, unpolished, and and not fully baked thoughts on the HAIL Storm gathering are:

Educational R&D Is A Cool Way To Frame Our Work

I really like the idea of thinking about advancing higher ed within an R&D framework. We get the importance of doing research and development (or research and design) in ensuring that other industries remain competitive.  Investing R&D resources in the world’s of technology, transportation, health, media - whatever - makes good sense to all of us. 

Why is it then that we don’t talk much in higher ed about R&D? 

Do we have any sense of what proportion of revenues or spending goes to R&D in higher ed? 

The Intersection of Digital Learning, Innovation, and Organizational Change Is An Interesting Place to Be: 

The people who gathered at HAIL Storm came from different types of schools - and are all navigating divergent pressures, constraints, and institutional goals.  What each of the attendees had in common was a commitment for higher education to serve as an engine of opportunity, and a belief that to make good on that promise what is required is non-incremental change.  

This work at the intersection of learning, technology, and organizational change requires a different set of skills and relationships than those that got us to our current positions.  For many of us, the vehicles where organizational change occurs are digital learning innovation projects.  The method to achieve institutional change is educational R&D.   

Internal Change Requires External Relationships: 

The changes that the attendees of the HAIL Storm are leading, advocating, and agitating for vary by institution (or system).  All of these changes have some component of access, quality, and costs.  And while the language of postsecondary productivity was less in evidence amongst the attendees, (everyone was talking about empathy, social intelligence, and user-centered design), I continue to see the world through a postsecondary productivity lens. 

What is clear is that postsecondary change require a network of support, and a community of practice.  One reason why external peers are critical is that digital innovation and educational R&D is difficult to sustain.  Starting new initiatives and programs is easier than bringing these initiatives and programs to scale.  The work is, by its nature, experimental and exploratory.  Failure is common.  The opportunity to situate our work (and our failures) within a larger context - that of peers involved in similar work at other institutions - is probably critical if we are to maintain our morale in the face of the inevitable setbacks and reversals that accompany any innovation initiative.  

Titles and Hierarchy Are Inimical to Innovation and Change: 

What was great about the HAIL Storm gathering was how little formal titles and institutional status seemed to matter.  Everyone at the gathering was deeply involved in learning some digital learning innovation effort.  Everyone had to navigate constraints imposed by limited resources, competing priorities, misaligned incentives, growing demands, and institutional cultures that are often allergic to change. 

HAIL Storm was a place where people involved in similar work, but occupying sometimes dissimilar institutional roles at a diverse set of institutions, could collaborate on tackling shared challenges.  The lack of jockeying for alliances and status was refreshing at HAIL Storm.  Nobody worked for anyone else, or was dependent on a colleague for budget, authority, or continued gainful employment. 

The cross-institutional and non-hierarchal nature of the discussion resulted in an ability to listen more intently, and to perhaps be less cautious in the ideas and information that was shared.  

This Is Work Without A Name Or An Organizational Home: 

Everyone who attended HAIL Storm could point to some exciting learning innovation and educational R&D project that they are helping to lead at their school / system.  Everyone at the gathering was conversant with the core principles of organizational change and learning science.   And everyone at the convening had some connection the world of digital learning. 

What the people attending HAIL Storm do not have is a name for what we do. 

Our titles don’t capture the connective thread that runs through this community. 

The group contains both educators with faculty status (and sometimes tenure), and educators who are not on the faculty (and certainly don’t have tenure). 

Many of the this group think that we are at the ground floor of creating a new (and yet unnamed) academic discipline. 

The existing higher ed professional organizations do not quite align with the goals or the people that constitute this group.  

Intimate Institutional-Based Gatherings Are The Future: 

I’ve grown skeptical about the efficacy of the big professional conference.  Or maybe I think that the big professional conference has its place, but that the format is no longer adequate for the cross-institutional work required of postsecondary innovation. 

There is something different - something special - that happens at a convening where everyone in attendance has the opportunity to get to know each other as individuals.  Where trust can be established.  Where real work can get done. 

I think that these gathering might best occur on the campuses of the colleges and universities that are involved in the collaborations.  No more convention centers.

Are you working on educational R&D and digital learning innovation?

Have you been involved in cross-institutional yet intimate gathering amongst close peers?

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