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Leading Beyond the Status Quo to Create a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Leading Beyond the Status Quo to Create a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education
Leaders have a critical and important role to play in driving innovation processes forward on their campuses, helping to move creative concepts all the way from their conceptualization to implementation.
Although higher education is often cited as an institutional culture that is slow to move beyond the status quo, it is really no different from any other when it comes to change. After all, colleges and universities are organizations made up of individuals, the majority of whom (an estimated 75 percent of the population, according to some studies) are wary of veering off the beaten trail.

On the other hand, these institutions are filled with highly educated people who, through their research, have produced thousands of innovations over the years, while also harnessing the power of technology to forge new and better directions in teaching and learning. So, they are indeed capable of adopting what organizational theorist Russell Ackoff called “a different worldview rooted in a new reality.”

As technology-enhanced education makes its way into the mainstream of higher learning, it is driving a new reality on college campuses everywhere, as an integral part of the academic fabric that continues to challenge the status quo and transform the academy’s worldview. In fact, it is paving the way for a campus culture of innovation that embraces technology for both its transactional expediency and, more importantly, its experiential value in a digital world where authentic connection is every bit as crucial as content delivery.

Set the Stage

In setting the stage for that cultural shift, academic leaders will need to advocate for an effective process for innovation that goes beyond the popular notion of disruption (which in my experience, holds a somewhat negative connotation for education professionals). This new approach must be intentional from the standpoint that it begins with the outcome in mind and works purposefully to achieve it in a way that is responsive rather than reactive.

Likewise, it should be inclusive in that it engages everyone who has an investment in that outcome, from campus administrators and trustees, to faculty, staff, and most especially students. And above all, this approach must be continuous from the standpoint that innovation is not viewed as a discreet action, which ends with execution, only to start up again when the next big idea or challenge appears on the horizon.

In building support for a culture of innovation, we can benefit from Thomas Edison’s approach, which Andrew Hardagon at UC Davis described as working “to create the future from the best pieces of the past … combining existing ideas in new ways to bridge old worlds and build new ones around the innovations that he saw as a result.” This methodology helps mobilize campus commitment and talent around merging the best of both worlds—virtual and face-to-face—to improve learning outcomes for students of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

The Edison perspective also promotes innovation as a journey, rather than a destination, with the goal of creating, capturing and delivering increasingly greater value on academic investment. Under this scenario, academic leaders take on the role of innovation evangelists, who then empower their faculty, staff and students to cultivate a safe and open environment for mutual support and collaborative experimentation, in which all ideas are on the table and every voice is heard.

This focus on open and honest communication frees everyone involved to define concerns, address impediments, and examine alternatives from within a broader context and to—like Edison—see emerging patterns that lead to creative solutions. Equally important, it fosters ownership of the innovation process itself—an important step in changing campus culture.

Prime the Pump

Once the stage is set, it’s time to prime the pump of creativity by putting an active framework in place that encourages discovery. For many, design thinking offers an effective construct, by exploiting the praxis of design to stimulate fresh perspectives and novel approaches. Likewise, it supports intentional, inclusive and continuous innovation that enables us to think big, start small and scale as we go.

As such, campus community members become designers, working in self-organizing, self-directed teams, from within and across disciplines and functions, to develop new and progressively more effective forms of technology-enhanced teaching and learning. And by further priming the pump with the right resources for experimentation, academic leaders create a greenhouse environment in which to test-drive the ever-evolving digital toolbox.

For example, Drexel recently invested in producing an open repository of more than 250,000 augmented and virtual reality learning objects—the first of its kind in the country. By providing this resource, we will empower the university’s faculty and staff designers to connect and brainstorm, pilot, test and build ever more valuable virtual learning experiences for our students, regardless of the delivery method. And in the process, inspire them to adopt a far more innovative teaching and learning mindset well beyond the traditional “talk and test” approach that is still the prevailing model in many colleges and universities.

Be the Change

Creating a culture of innovation is never easy, nor is it linear and structured. Indeed, transformational change that challenges the status quo in any organization can be as unsettling as it is powerful, in that it encourages risk, which can lead to failure or success, both of which must be embraced and evaluated for real progress to occur.

As in most organizations, transformation begins at the top of the university hierarchy, and action speaks louder than words when it comes to building and sustaining critical support around new ways of thinking and doing. Thus, as evangelists, campus leaders must, above all, be the change they seek, by not only “talking the talk,” but also “walking the walk” of continuous innovation. In doing so, they will be in a far better position to leverage their institutions’ strengths and galvanize their stakeholders behind a technology-driven culture of teaching and learning that reflects the behaviors and meets the expectations of their students.

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