explorations in the ed tech world

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Tag: teaching and learning centres

Prioritizing Innovation in the Organizational Structure

image from https://smithsmm.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/quote-featured.jpg It’s been a while since I wrote a series about the topic of innovation in higher education.  Here they are from 2015:

About those innovation jobs…7 Rules About Innovation

First steps in Creating a culture of innovation in higher education – Figuring out what innovation will mean

Removing barriers to innovation – the teaching and learning centre and third spaces

Some ideas for creating a culture of innovation

Considerations for ed tech and innovation

In preparation for being invited a second time (thanks Mark!) to facilitate a discussion on Institutional Organization and Support  in the Planning and Managing Technologies in Higher Education course,  I’ve found myself thinking about organizational structures and achieving higher ed innovation goals.  Since I lead a teaching and learning centre, I care a lot about the role a teaching and learning centre can have in innovation.  But I also recognize that sometimes centres can impede innovation and there are reasons why that happens.

For starters, teaching and learner centres generally exist to support some aspect of the academic strategy or plan.  But academic strategies have a 3-5 year life and centres generally outlive academic plans.  If a centre has been in existence for a while, sometimes it evolves into a well-oiled machine where program reviews, faculty development, and the support and dissemination of good teaching practices are all part of the centre’s activities.  These are bread and butter activities that indisputably support ANY academic plan and therefore the prioritization of these kinds of activities can go unchallenged. Staff in the centre were also likely hired based on their abilities to support  these things and the centre becomes very skilled at doing them.

Ambitious e-learning or innovation agendas can throw a wrench into the centre’s well oiled machine.  For starters, the ambition doesn’t always match the existing resources and centres may or may not have the right staff to lead or implement the innovation agenda.  Secondly, without clear direction and expectations from the executive, centres may be tasked with doing innovation in addition to all the other excellent work they are doing.    What results is an initiative or two added onto the centre’s existing activities without the appropriate ground work required to have long term, sustainable change.

I’m of the opinion that ambitious innovation agendas actually require sustained and dedicated leadership and groundwork.  I’ve already written about what this means in terms of high level steps.  Operationally, something like expanding or shifting the ed tech infrastructure (very important) at the institution to meet the innovation goals usually  requires countless meetings between the centre’s director and the CIO or any technology steering committees, stakeholders,  and the executive.  Since e-learning innovation usually (hopefully!) results in innovation in program delivery, there are additional tie-ins with registration, student support, faculty development, and learning design.

So what’s the problem? If you are a well resourced institution you can create a dedicated centre focussed on e-learning and innovation  (ideally one  that is not divorced from the core centre)  to take on the agenda until it settles into a new normal.  But many institutions can’t afford to do this which leads to the centre being overloaded and the innovation being water-down or slight variations of status quo.

This is where I think centres and institutions run into trouble.  The institution has a role in being clear on the priorities and understanding what activities in the centre need to be parked in order to achieve the innovation agenda.  This isn’t to say that one can’t bleed into the other…for example there will likely be a faculty development component to innovation but I think it’s unrealistic for less-resourced centres to be doing scholarship of teaching and learning, indigenization, internationalization, and e-learning innovation concurrently (several of which are popular items on academic plans these days) .  You run the risk of being a jack of all trades and master of none and you may end up a teaching and learning centre that appears to lack focus.

 

 

Removing barriers to innovation – the teaching and learning centre and third spaces

In my last 2 posts ( 7 Rules About Innovation ; First Steps in Creating a Culture of Innovation;   I said I’d get to the topic of removing barriers to innovation in an institution. I’m a bit academic about this topic, since I feel like this stage requires some sort of framework that gives your actions some method to the madness.  This is also one area where I think senior leadership would do well to be a bit more academic outside of standard leadership literature and practices.  But I digress…

Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory is probably the most well known and cited tome on innovation, and I’ve found that senior admin really grasp this idea of diffusion and innovation, so it’s a good one to have in your back pocket. But it doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty of what is happening in an organization at a macro level to inhibit or foster innovation, and what to do about it.  I’m an activity theorist at heart, so I tend to structure my method to madness around a  version of Star and Griesemer’s idea of boundary objects.  I think of boundary objects as organizational artefacts – people, committees, money, positions, policies, procedures – that can be inhibitive or facilitative.  They sit at the boundary of many spheres of activity, not just your own innovation agenda, and as Director/VP/President of Innovation you probably have to create some new boundary objects too.  The key is understanding which ones are important to the innovation vision that you have proposed (and has been endorsed) so that you can move ahead with your plans.

There are some obvious first places to examine in your institution and assess whether they are facilitating innovation or inhibiting it.  The most obvious place to start is the teaching and learning centre.

Teaching and Learning Centres: Is your T&L centre facilitative or inhibitive?  T & L Centres in my experience are a bit of an innovation paradox, in that they are well positioned to be an innovation hub for the institution but often need to be reinvented and transformed in order to do this.  This is especially the case with well-established T & L Centres that have become highly invested and good at doing one or two things (curriculum development, faculty development)  at the expense of others.   While the role of T&L centres is generally to enhance teaching and learning at the institution, my view is that given that these Centres are often centrally funded, ultimately their role is to make the lives of teaching and learning staff easier.  As with ‘innovation’ , this means different things to different people.  The VP Academic might very well see the T & L centre’s priority to increase the quality of teaching at the institution, but is this the Dean’s immediate priority? The Dean’s priority might be to have a simpler way of managing curriculum in its Faculty.  The faculty member might just want some support on the online course environment that they’ve been asked to teach.  Within this context, innovation competes with numerous other priorities.

If this is the case at your institution,  then I like the idea of invoking (in academic terms again) a third space* – a sort of fail safe zone or zones for innovation and transformation that is separate yet connected to the T & L Centre.  Plenty of institutions do this, and sometimes it can look like off-the-side-of-the-desk rogue activity, or unofficial clusters of activity, but I think it stands a better chance of succeeding if it has been endorsed and supported by the senior admin and the budget, rather than being an under-the-radar secret.

In order for these third spaces to work, they need to consider other barriers to innovation:  time, money, people, and bureaucracy.  This could be a whole other post, but simply put, if you innovation space requires a lot of effort to access the equipment, money, people, then it’s not really helping anybody.  This might be stating the obvious, but here are a couple of examples I’ve seen:

  1.  innovation equipment locked up in a separate room 3 or 4 buildings over from the teaching site.  Only the most keen and confident instructor will bother getting to campus early to go and grab the equipment and set it up.
  2. innovation funding processes that require filling out long, elaborate forms, that then have to be endorsed by multiple committees over a several month process.  Faculty are busy, and if it takes more hours to get the money than to use the money then there’s little ROI for them.  Also, if they have an idea they want to implement, it’s usually time sensitive.  This process also doesn’t support the notion that innovation is messy and sometimes fails.
  3. innovation that has to fit into existing systems, technologies, world views. Eg. an e-portfolio project that has to use the institutionally endorsed (read: expensive) e-portfolio tool.   This is a tricky one. On the one hand supporting innovation means that it should support the innovation vision of the institution (see second post on this) and it’s not a free for all.  But on the other hand, you have to know where you can let it go and challenge existing thoughts on this…for example, does it really have to tie into the institutional LMS, SIS, policy XYZ?  For me, third spaces should challenge the status quo where appropriate, otherwise it’s not really innovation.

Institutions often get into trouble with #3, because they’ve overly invested in certain technologies and want to see a measurable ROI, have created overly inhibitive structures (steering committees, policies), or lack vision and leadership on innovation.  Which unfortunately means that if you’re in a senior position with innovation as part of your job title/portfolio, and you don’t have the means or senior support to remove the barriers, then you’ve got a really tough job ahead of you.

*(Guiterrez, 1999, but nicely summarized here.)

 

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