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Moving Beyond the Buzzword: Understanding Innovation in Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | Moving Beyond the Buzzword: Understanding Innovation in Higher Ed
In order to fully embrace innovation in higher education, thought leaders must change cultural preconceptions about innovation, and help faculty, administrators and instructional designers see it as not just a buzzword but as a new status quo.
In April 2018, the Online Learning Consortium published The State of Innovation in Higher Education: A Survey of Academic Administrators . The report surveyed over 100 college and university administrators to gain insight into the drivers of and barriers to innovation in American institutes of higher education. In this interview, Jill Buban provides insight into the study’s findings, and outlines how colleges and university can define and employ innovation on campus, today and in the future.

EvoLLLution (Evo): Why was it important for the Online Learning Consortium to learn about the drivers of and barriers to postsecondary innovation?

Jill Buban (JB): We wanted to build a framework around innovation in higher education, and how it drives administrative decision making on campuses. “Innovation” has long been a loosely defined buzzword for colleges and universities. It can mean different things to different administrators. For example, one institution might view innovation purely in terms of technology, while another may see innovation from an academic context. With such disparate definitions, administrators building “innovation” into their five- or ten-year strategic plans may have very different outcomes and very different measures of success in mind.

Evo: Based on your work, how would you define innovation in the postsecondary context?

JB: We defined “innovation” as the implementation of new initiatives to drive growth, increase revenue, reduce cost, and differentiate experience for investor value propositions. This definition hinges on the intended outcomes of innovation, which means it can apply anywhere on campus. Growth, revenue, cost reduction, differentiation of experience—these are all clear business outcomes that any office, department, employee or staff member can drive towards. They aren’t solely applicable to the office of instructional design or academic affairs.

When looking at the outcomes of innovation, it’s critical for administrators to consider how innovation will impact students – after all, they’re the reason we’re here. Pursuing innovation for the purposes of cost reduction can’t just be about making the institution leaner—administrators have to figure out how to pass those cost savings on to students. Likewise, administrators who want to leverage innovation to differentiate their schools from others have to consider how innovations, such as recognizing different pathways towards credentials and establishing prior-learning assessment, will impact the student experience.

Evo: That’s a very outcomes-driven approach to understanding creativity and innovation. I find that interesting because it flies in the face of what’s traditionally thought of as the “proper” way of managing an institution.

JB: The word that stands out for me in your question is “creativity.” Innovation and creativity are so often aligned, and I think that’s a result of how thought leaders in the field view and pursue innovation. Recently, Jeff Selingo wrote a piece about how different models for innovation align with different campuses. That article drove it home for me because it acknowledged that innovation is inextricably tied to a creativity process, and can be subjective to different campuses.

Evo: Reflecting on your findings, what were a few of the key drivers of innovation?

JB: The thing that really came out in this study was the focus on student success. It wasn’t so much about how the institution was going to leverage innovation as a marketing buzzword or a means to get ahead—it was really about innovating to support student success and improve the student experience.

Evo: What were a few of the roadblocks or obstacles that stood in the way of entrepreneurial leaders implementing innovative processes on campus?

JB: In terms of roadblocks, 80 percent of our respondents said that structural issues and cultural factors were the top barriers to innovation. That was an interesting finding, because while most institutions said that they had included innovation in their strategic plan, many didn’t have direct funding for innovation in their budget. That’s both a structural and cultural issue because it shows that many institutions still perceive innovation as a buzzword. They know innovation might move them forward strategically, but they’re not backing up those efforts financially.

I’d love to dig a little deeper and look at innovative practices that receive funding but which aren’t specifically categorized as innovation. For example, if an institution invests in adaptive learning systems or university-wide data warehousing, that would make an institution more innovative, though the institution might not specifically acknowledge it as such. That is a cultural obstacle, and I think there’s a deeper dive to be made.

Evo: What kind of advice would you share for a leader who’s encountering a structural or cultural obstacle to doing something differently?

JB: Whether you’re a leader, faculty, instructional designer, student administrator, there’s always an opportunity to find ways to be creative and work with peers to implement change. Innovation comes from the bottom up as much as the top down, which is why pilot projects are so effective as a first step towards innovative change.

There’s that strength in numbers. If you can get buy in from the people on your team, and demonstrate proven outcomes in smaller pilot projects like non-semester courses, it can effect change from the bottom up.

Whether change comes from the top or the bottom, institutional buy in is essential. In some cases, faculty motivators are effective in implementing innovative practices. I might be a positivist, but I think when we’re looking at change that positively affects student success, most people on campus are willing to get on board. Demonstrating and communicating success is important to creating a change-oriented culture.

Evo: What was the most surprising insight that you gained from the research?

JB: For me, it was about finding the nexus of “innovation” as a buzzword and determining what it actually means on campus. Administrators are promoting “innovation” in their strategic plans, but what do they actually mean by it? One of the reasons that innovation efforts are poorly funded is because innovation itself isn’t well defined; how do we get to a place where we are more readily funding these different pockets of innovation to positively affect the campus and students?

The other key takeaway was how institutions perceive innovation as an administrative concept. 60 percent of the administrators we surveyed said that their institutions were either “fast followers” or “average” in terms of innovation, while only 22 percent considered themselves “leading edge.” That says a lot about how universities are positioning themselves. Maybe because it has that buzzword connotation, many institutions are reluctant to identify as innovative.

A lot of institutions are faced with the question of whether they stick with the business they know, or whether to take a risk by implementing new practices and cultures. That can be a big jump for institutions, but it can be very fruitful.

Evo: Is there any closing advice you’d like to share with innovative leaders that are looking to drive change in the digital learning space on their campuses?

JB: I’d like to point out that we only had a small percentage of two-year colleges—they comprised about 10 percent of the respondents. I’d like to see us do a follow-up into what’s happening on two-year campuses, because it can be a very different world from four-year colleges and universities.

Second, administrators and thought leaders who are looking to effect innovative change need to be thoughtful about what their student population might look like in five or ten years. Considering how to positively impact students on that longer-term outlook can be in itself an innovation: You’re looking at how to move your campus and student body forward, and how to provide the best education over the long term.

Finally, administrators looking to implement innovation on campuses can look to their peers. Some of the people we interviewed for this survey—Evangeline Cummings from the University of Florida and Tom Cavanaugh from the University of Central Florida come to mind—have been able to build pockets of innovation that could provide a useful starting point for those looking to build innovations of their own. Professional networks and industry peers can be an invaluable source for better understanding the possibilities of innovation on campus: sharing what worked and what didn’t, which practices were effective and which weren’t, can ultimately help other institutions replicate innovation and bring it to scale.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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