What’s wrong with innovation

Written by Paula Shaw

Academic Lead for HE Innovate and Associate Professor in Online Learning at the University of Derby


In other words, what’s wrong with being innovative? Have you ever tried to implement a new technology-based approach to learning? If so, you’ll know that it’s difficult and it takes a lot of effort because other people can’t visualise the details like you do. So what do you do? How do you make your idea stick? Many innovators use examples from society to help their audience to visualise the wider benefits, for example, the well-established Voice over IP (VOIP) technology such as Skype, was under-used in education until the Covid-19 crisis. Since then, a wide range of options have emerged and you may have noticed that on a weekly basis the tools evolve, as HEIs battle to define best practice processes. But there are a few things you should know about educational innovation that set it apart from societal technology, the first being that – the wheels turn more slowly. This blog post will explain what steps we can take to become successful educational innovators.

What’s wrong with innovation!

So, what is wrong with educational innovation?

First of all, we tend to have different interpretations of it. I propose that we need a common understanding, so let’s start with a definition. Here is mine, based on an amalgamation of definitions:

Learning enhancements discovered through investigation, development, application and evaluation. These may be prototypes; they may already exist in society, or exist within other HEIs. 

For me, innovation is born out of a strong desire to solve a problem and create something worthwhile; that takes a willingness to listen, adapt and test solutions, with a wide range of people that use your unique HEI’s infrastructure. You may draw on an idea from another HEI but you will need to investigate how to make it work in yours, and this is where you may struggle to move your idea forward.

As history tells us that since the early 2000s, a plethora of learning technologies have been developed, each proposing to improve the student experience. Yet, a study conducted by Martin et al. (2018) demonstrates that new technology adoption in Higher Education (HE) is sporadic, despite wide-scale social interest and a wealth of academic publications.

Why doesn’t it stick?

There are many reasons, but here are a few…

Firstly, horizon reports, of which three spring to mind, the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, the Open University’s Innovation Report and the newly launched Advance HE’s On the Horizon Report, all suggest that adoption of certain educational technologies is imminent. Yet, in reality, without impactful evidence of efficiency and improvements on the existing tools already in circulation, institutional confidence in their value is low (Kirkup & Kirkwood, 2005). Martin et al. (2018) concluded that the NMC Horizon Report was successful in predicting 50% of technology uptake which counters the claim that all these are ready for “imminent” adoption. Unsurprisingly, the most successful educational technologies were those attracting high social and scientific interest such as the use of mobile apps. Whereas, there is evidence to suggest that technologies with low societal value but potentially high educational value are rejected because they are not easily understood. This includes approaches such as the use of open content, often referred to as OERs

Secondly, institutional decision making rarely includes a cross section of stakeholders collectively debating the proposed technology’s impact.

Lastly, people spend significant portions of time alone imagining and testing new technologies. This leads to multiple interpretations of its use and value and results in partial, ineffective implementation (Leonardi, 2009; Martin et al., 2018).

So, how can we solve real problems and make a difference in six steps?

In 2020 Shaw et al. took a hard look at educational technology adoption, and this resulted in a new framework to guide the implementation of educational innovation. The Pedagogic Realignment with Organisational Priorities and Horizon Emergent Technologies or PROPHET Framework visualises three phases of activity, which can be further broken down into six steps.  The cycle begins with analysing practical problems, which includes the first two steps of establishing the purpose and learning the language. Phase two, critical analysis also has two steps, to encourage you to engage stakeholders in the design and disseminate your intentions. The third phase of iterative test and refinement includes two final steps of implementation and evaluation.

Figure 1: The three phases of the PROPHET Framework (Shaw et al, 2020)

These six steps are summarised below:

  • Step 1 – Purpose: Before you start diving into the technology aspect, get the purpose right. Price and Kirkwood (2011) identified a number of themes ranging from increasing flexibility to preparing students for their careers. If your new technology approach does not solve one of these problems, you will find it difficult to get people interested in your idea. Use the horizon reports to explore evidence-based applications of your approach that have worked elsewhere.
  • Step 2 – Learn the language: Next, try to image the problem as vividly as possible from different stakeholders’ perspectives (sector, managers, academics, students). A pragmatic suggestion is to identify the problem at a specific level and learn the language to understand it, at least one level above and below the problem.
  • Step 3- Bricolage: Then Bricolage bring together education concepts, models, pedagogy, technology, frameworks, students and social practices so that the benefits of innovative projects are based on evidence and not theory alone (Scalon et al. 2014).

Figure 2: Beyond Prototypes model of the TEL Innovation Process (Scalon et al, 2014)

Involve students from the start and be organised and persistent, someone has to keep the innovation moving! Something that I learnt quite early on was to schedule meeting times and stick to them, really try to understand what works for your group, for example, avoiding peak working times such as assessment submission and marking periods.  At this stage you may want to obtain ethical consent to study your idea too, this will clarify and strengthen your purpose, and as this often takes time to approve, it won’t slow you down in the later stages.

Step 4 – Disseminate: Once you have a tested prototype, explain it clearly, to different stakeholders. This is where using the correct language will be useful. Rogers’ (1995) Diffusion of Innovation (DoI) theory is helpful here, as the innovation will need to be discussed amongst members of the organisation, at different levels, and different levels do not always speak the same language. The purpose of these communications is to reduce uncertainty about the innovation, the relative advantages, compatibility and complexity of implementation.  Your stakeholders will need opportunities to test and observe the innovation within their practice and if your innovation is effective, a critical mass of adopters will be achieved and you’ll reach a “tipping point”. What Roger’s model doesn’t take into consideration though is institutional culture. The HEFCE Catalyst fund for innovations in teaching and learning evaluation report (2020) found that many of their funded projects were inhibited by insufficient managerial support, lack of engagement from colleagues and a lack of awareness of internal institutional procedures. In the PROPHET framework, Shaw et al. combined Roger’s model with that of Erez & Gati (2004), to influence change across and between levels, to create the dynamic multi-level diffusion of innovation model (DMDI), this ensures that all levels of the institution do speak the same language.

  • Step 5 – Implement: So, once you reach the ‘tipping point’ implementation will be easy, right? Wrong! It needs to fit comfortably within the HEI’s culture and operations and that will take iterative refinements to policy and process. Shaw et al. (2020) discuss this as the third phase of the PROPHET Framework.
  • Step 6 – Evaluate the impact: Finally, record the impact of your innovation. Price and Kirkwood (2011) identified three measures of impact; accounts of the technology being used in education; evidence of ‘enhanced’ student learning; evidence of changes in academic practice. Be aware that recording evidence of impact is difficult and takes time, as you need to be aware of the plethora of variables it creates, as Amiel and Reeves (2008; p.35) contend “the sheer number of variables is indeed so many that one-shot studies of impact would lead to very limited insight”. Using the PROPHET framework, Shaw et al. (2020) investigated their online learning model and reported enhanced online student learning and evidence of changed academic practice, alongside some next steps for further improvements.

Now that you know what it takes to see your innovation realised, you’re ready to start. The afore mentioned HEFCE Catalyst fund evaluation highlighted that participants would have welcomed the opportunity to share and develop their ideas with members of the wider academic community.  That’s the purpose of Innovate HE community, you don’t need to struggle alone, share your ideas and work together, this way bricolage won’t feel so daunting. Knowing that you have sense checked your idea with like-minded individuals should give you the confidence to disseminate your idea within your own institution. So, what’s your idea? Don’t be shy, post a summary on the HE Innovate Steering Group feed and let’s get started.

Amiel, T., & Reeves, T. C. (2008). Design-based research and educational technology: Rethinking technology and the research agenda. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 11(4), 29-40. https://www.ds.unipi.gr/et&s/journals/11_4/3.pdf

Brown, M., McCormack, M., Reeves, J., Brooks, C., & Grajek, S. (2020). EDUCAUSE Horizon Report. Teaching and Learning Edition. Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE. https://library.educause.edu/resources/2020/3/2020-educause-horizon-report-teaching-and-learning-edition

Erez, M., & Gati, E. (2004). A dynamic, multi-level model of culture: from the micro level of the individual to the macro level of a global culture. Applied Psychology, 53(4), 583-598. https://ie.technion.ac.il/~merez/papers/change_paper_APIR.pdf

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Wasson, B., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. The Open University, Milton Keynes. http://oro.open.ac.uk/59132/

Gordon, C., McKenna, C., & McCabe, M. (2020). Final evaluation of the Office for Students’ Catalyst A Programme for Pedagogic Innovation Projects: Report to the OfS by London School of Economics and Political Science: February 2020. Office for Students. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/36059/1/innovation-projects-final-evaluation-report.pdf

Kirkup, G., & Kirkwood, A. (2005). Information and communications technologies (ICT) in higher education teaching—a tale of gradualism rather than revolution. Learning, media and technology, 30(2), 185-199. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439880500093810

Leonardi, P. M. (2009). Why do people reject new technologies and stymie organizational changes of which they are in favor? Exploring misalignments between social interactions and materiality. Human Communication Research, 35(3), 407-441. https://www.dhi.ac.uk/san/waysofbeing/data/economy-crone-leonardi-2009c.pdf

Martin, P. (2018). On the horizon. Advance HE. https://www.advancehe.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/horizon

Martin, S., López-Martín, E., Lopez-Rey, A., Cubillo, J., Moreno-Pulido, A., & Castro, M. (2018). Analysis of new technology trends in education: 2010–2015. IEEE Access, 6, 36840- 36848. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=8400521

Price, L., & Kirkwood, A. (2011). Enhancing professional learning and teaching through technology: a synthesis of evidence-based practice among teachers in higher education. Higher Education Academy. http://www.lth.se/fileadmin/lth/genombrottet/DTR/PLATP_Main_Report_2011.pdf

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Fleck, J., Cooban, C., Ferguson, R., Cross, S. & Waterhouse, P. (2013). Beyond prototypes: Enabling innovation in technology-enhanced learning. The Open University, Milton Keynes. http://oro.open.ac.uk/41119/1/BeyondPrototypes.pdf

Shaw, P., Rawlinson, S. & Sheffield, D. (2020). Exploring the problem of establishing horizon emergent technologies within a higher education institution’s operational framework.  European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning, 23(1). https://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2020/Shaw_et_al.pdf

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