Thursday, 10 February 2011

Exploring the concept of innovation

The first week of H807 has been concerned with the concept of innovation. Some interesting ideas have been put forward on the tutor group forum, and it has occurred to me that the whole concept of innovation is very relevant in my current context. I'll come back to that shortly, but first a summary of the points I have gleaned from the forum, with acknowledgement to the members of my tutor group:

  • Innovation can be interpreted both as the implementation of something completely new and as the application of existing ideas in a new setting.
  • Innovation is, to some extent, context-dependent, i.e. something which is deemed innovative in one setting may be considered standard practice in another.
  • The promotion of elearning as an innovation purely on the grounds of cost effective delivery does not necessarily mean that the innovation is, or will be, successful.
  • The best innovations meet a genuine need – there is little point in innovation if it isn't useful. In an educational context, for example, an innovation might be considered successful if it makes learning more interesting, or more exciting, or more flexible, or more collaborative.
  • Many educational innovations emerge from the 'chalk face', and are reliant on the enthusiasm and imagination of educators who can directly recognise the potential benefits of them.
  • When educational innovations are designed and implemented, the learner's perspective must be at the forefront. This means considering both the direct benefits which the learner will gain from the innovation, and the investment of time and resources required on the part of the learner in order to realise those benefits.
  • As a concept, innovation is generally viewed in positive terms. However, innovation can also be disruptive – it is often associated with change and in many organisations there is an inherent resistance to change.
  • Most large organisations, including universities, are not really conducive to innovation because they are constrained by bureaucracy and regulations, and don't always have the necessary infrastructure. Promoting a culture of innovation requires a commitment on the part of the organisation to invest in the necessary time and resources to achieve it. Some large organisations (such as Google) do actually achieve this.
  • The resistance to change which is inherent in many universities, occurs both on the part of academic staff and on the part of students. Some academic staff, for a variety of reasons (some of which are perfectly understandable) do not recognise the potential benefits which innovative approaches could bring to students' learning experiences. In addition, some students are equally reluctant to adopt new approaches to learning.
  • Innovations often arise out of crises – as the saying goes: "Necessity is the mother of invention".

So – that brings me to my own context at my university. As most people will be aware, the proposed new funding arrangements for higher education are going to create an extremely challenging environment over the next few years, though no one is really sure exactly what the impact will be. In response to this, the Dean of our school instigated a school-wide review exercise over two days last month in which all staff were required to participate. One of the exercises involved being split into groups and asked to come up with new ideas (innovations?) to respond to the challenges we faced. I gave the report-back presentation from our group to the rest of the school and one of the key things which I suggested was that each module should become a self-contained learning package which would continue to be delivered face-to-face but would be supported with greater use of online resources. I wasn't proposing a move towards distance education, but simply the use of technology to provide greater flexibility of access for our students. I argued that the 'learning package' approach would enable prospective students to decide for themselves how many modules they wanted to commit to in any one year, rather than being forced into a rigid programme of study designed to suit the university. Judging by the response I got from some staff, anyone would have thought I was Nick Clegg turning up at a students' rally! I stood and took flak from across the school as I defended the idea and emphasised the potential benefits, but it was clear that there would be major resistance to such a move from a significant proportion of staff within the school.

So will this "innovation" ever see the light of day? I'm not sure. From comments I received afterwards, it is apparent that not all staff are opposed to it. It is possible that when the real implications of the new funding arrangements become apparent maybe colleagues will view things in a different light. As it happens the courses for which I am responsible are currently undergoing their periodic review, so the course team has an opportunity to implement some changes anyway. I think all we can do for the moment is to ensure that our courses are structured in such a way that a move towards a new delivery mode could be implemented with minimum disruption.


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