I write this in an office that has my name and unit posted on the door. The unit is called the Learning Innovation Hub (LIH). We’ve not directly replaced the former Learning and Teaching Centre (LTC), and yet many of the former LTC staff now work in the LIH. We undertake numerous projects and activities with a cross-section of community stakeholders and yet people still don’t seem to know who we are or what we do. Often getting confused with the Incubator, (the Incubator does entrepreneurship, start-ups and business improvement, we do learning technologies and L&T support), I was also recently asked
“Well, what do you actually do that’s innovative?”
This article is an effort to explore these ideas a little and try to understand why the word innovation can be confusing, misleading and misunderstood.
At present, the concept of ‘innovation’ features prominently across all industries and sectors – every company seems to have an innovation department, an innovation tech space, a design thinking think tank, an ideation task force. It’s everywhere in Higher Education too, encapsulating research, entrepreneurship, technology, learning, teaching and business improvement. In the 2017 Horizon report, the first ‘key trend’ is Advancing Cultures of Innovation. Sydney Uni has an ‘Innovation Hub’ (confusingly for us, it’s their Incubator), as well as a Centre for Research on Learning and Innovation. UNSW has an Innovations office that “transform(s) research discoveries into successful products”. The University of Adelaide has a Director, Learning Enhancement & Innovation and UTS has a Teaching Technologies, Innovation and Support unit. Monash has an “Innovation Studio” and the ANU has a philanthropy drive to support ‘Innovative Learning’. Used so ubiquitously, is the word beginning to lose its meaning?
I do not pose this question to undermine the work of these teams and initiatives, and certainly not the work of the Learning Innovation Hub. Our team works very hard servicing a diverse range of community members, from the Executive Office to pathway and outreach students, faculty teams to property and AVTS, academics to students. It’s just that the weight of perception and expectation the title of the unit carries, based on ‘innovation work’ that takes place across these myriad iterations, seems to create something of a conundrum.
At a recent Co-Op book shop sale, my colleague Alana picked up the Harvard Business Review’s collected work “On Innovation”. Of course I dived straight in – what is this innovation business really all about?
In a nutshell, I’ll start by saying it’s not about shiny new pieces of technology, it’s not about sweeping change and it’s not about an elite set of innovators in the corner coming up with all the ideas. What I found is that innovation is and should be at its heart democratic, iterative, co-operative and inclusive. It can’t happen in isolation, so if innovation is important to a community, a culture needs to be built that fosters the essence of what innovation means to us, in this place, at this time. It’s a two-way dialogue of mutual respect between those trying new things (which may just be an upgrade or a new process, not necessarily a brand-new tool) and those whose job it is to create and protect an efficient yet stable status quo. But, as Govindarajan & Trimble state, in their article Stop the Innovation Wars,
“To dismiss innovation leaders as reckless rebels intent on undermining discipline in the pursuit of an esoteric dream is to write off the company’s future.”
So, what does innovation aim to do?
The site Idea to Value, a community blog for creativity and innovation experts, asked 15 experts what their idea of innovation was (sadly, I have to note that all experts listed were men). Here are just some of the ideas that stood out to me;
“Let’s open up a dialogue with everyone in the organization about how we can get better at finding, testing, and implementing the great ideas that people are already having” – David Burkus
“I try not to define “innovation” as we should tone down our use of the word and term.” Stefan Lindegaard
“Innovation is bigger than a product or a technological platform. And in truth, it’s the innovations to organizations and management that precede product or technology innovation anyway” – David Burkus
“The biggest mistake companies make is not taking stock in how innovative they already are.” Drew Boyd
“Innovation often starts with something that annoys you personally and is relevant for you. Something you personally really want to change, because you need to” – Gijs van Wulfen
“Many companies make grand statements about their commitment to innovation but do not invest in the time, people or money to prototype innovative ideas” – Paul Sloane
“I’m not innovating if I’m not bettering people’s lives.” Jorge Barba
“Put more women in top management. Research studies have shown it improves the success rate of innovation, and also the bottom line” – Jeffrey Baumgartner
The author then boiled down the thoughts of the experts in to one phrase, which I’ve adapted for our university context,
“executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the [university] and [student]”.
Additionally, as Diana Oblinger expresses in an Educause Blog, “the idea grows, and you figure out what you need to make it more successful each time.”
The way the Learning Innovation Hub aims to achieve this is through a disciplined effort to improve the potential of learning & teaching systems and processes, through
- professional development initiatives
- upgrades and improvements to tools and platforms
- sharing and exchanging knowledge and practice in Teche and Events
- through quality assurance activities and developments
- by exploring options in educational media and blended learning approaches.
There is always a conscious, purposeful search for opportunities. But we can’t and shouldn’t do this in isolation. Innovation happens effectively across the community where there is an exchange of ideas, feedback and encouragement.
All the experts agree that the majority of opportunities for innovation and enhancement don’t come from a completely new idea or item, and certainly not from shiny new toys. The majority of the opportunities arise from a combination of pin pointing problems, pain points and failures, changes in the market or an iterative upgrade to an existing product, changes in community demographics, and changes in the knowledge, perception and literacy level of a particular idea or technology.
But these opportunities don’t tend to fit the way the HE sector has always approached, defended, organised and served practices. So a certain amount of agility is need to adjust to new challenges and products. It is not surprising to us that upgrades, new features and tools are met with skepticism and resistance. But our role is to continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible, what’s newly available in the sector and what delivers flexible and effective learning choices for students.
Innovations need to be specific, clear, carefully designed and implemented effectively. In her keynote address at Ascilite17, Amber Case highlighted the need to focus on how innovation and technology changes can enhance our shared humanity. A number of parties have a stake in the outcomes, academic staff, professional staff and students, and so it requires constant feedback and dialogue from these participants. Innovation is collaborative, collective and connected.
“Innovation is work, not genius”
We acknowledge that resistance to change often comes from the efforts of hardworking people doing important work, trying to run ongoing operations as effectively as possible, and innovation initiatives can sometimes seem to be an excessive and disruptive burden. Our community requires a win-win for both sides. Leaders in the innovation space need to unpack why certain initiatives are in the best long-term interest of the university community as much as possible to allay job security fears.
How are we innovating, in the LIH, at Macquarie?
The LIH’s focus this year is ‘innovation in the everyday’, to improve what we have, bring in external energies and expertise to invigorate us, focus on the why not the how, the pedagogy of activity, not the technology, the human experience, not the tool. In addition (to name just a few projects),
- we’ve got a bunch of new iLearn upgrades,
- we’re introducing the HEA fellowship scheme,
- we’re exploring the use cases of VR in the learning environment,
- we’re looking deeper into the why of learning analytics,
- we’re spearheading a learning spaces project,
- we’re testing a range of assessment and groupwork applications,
- we’re investigating accessibility tools, video assessment and improved communications
– as well as supporting day-to-day operations in the faculties and offices. A lot of testing and scoping work is done before it becomes accessible to all, so the ‘innovation’ may not always be overt.
Just two days ago we held a workshop and ideas session with the faculty learning designers to hear what features they want in iLearn, what academics are asking for and how iLearn can perform better. If we lead a Tech Talk, a workshop, an LTX, a focus group – give us your honest feedback, your suggestions, your user experience, your pain points. That’s the way we’re going to shape and make the experience better. If users only resist, and not try to improve initiatives, they’re doing themselves a disservice. If we understand pain points, we can work towards fixing them. But we too are going to work harder at strengthening users’ understanding of why an upgrade or a new tool is useful to them, rather than just showing which buttons to push.
There is a great deal of innovative work happening in the faculties and offices by staff who teach and those who support L&T. A number of them are recognised through awards, grants and other measures. Our job (at the centre) is to discover these efforts, tap into them, celebrate them, follow on from them, connect new collaborators, help to expand and enhance them.
The trick to mastery in the innovation space is leveraging what the change or the innovation means to, and how it impacts, the human experience. In order to do this, we need to build strong partnerships across the organisation to maintain the vital feedback loop required for the iterative improvements involved in innovation. In a piece titled How Do We Measure “Innovation”?, Audrey Watters writes “in education, innovation can take place through either significant changes in the use of a particular educational practice or the emergence of new practices in an educational system. That is, “innovation” means changing practices — organizationally and pedagogically.” That involves all kinds of roles across the community, from the system analyst, to the Strategy Lead, from the AD L&T to the Senior Lecturer, from the PVCs to the students. We’re all in it together.
Please feel free to leave your comments on how we as a community can work more collaboratively towards ‘advancing cultures of innovation’. Or please contact me on email.