Advancing a Culture of Innovation

According to the most recent Horizon Report , “Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation” is one of the long-term trends to watch for in Higher Ed over the next five years.

“It will require visionary leadership to build higher education environments that are equipped to quickly change processes and strategies as startups do. If these organizational models are designed well, universities can experience more efficient implementation of new practices and pedagogies.” -2016 Horizon Report

Changing direction by Kapapuka Argazkiak on Flickr
Changing Direction by K. Argazkiak on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA

The report references Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup (2011) as an example of an approach educators may employ to advance cultures of change on the college campus. The process is a business model for entrepreneurs to rapidly design and develop new ventures and involves a cycle of deploying “lean” (less than fully developed) prototypes, followed by collecting feedback from consumers, which in turn informs the next step in the development / design process. Fully developed products and services may have undergone several iterations, oftentimes resulting in a final product that may have changed significantly from the original prototype but has proven more attractive to the consumer.

This idea of rapidly cycling through numerous iterations is a method also used in DevOps – an approach to application development that brings together software developers (coders) and information technology (operations) upon the goals of improving quality and lessening time to market. An important characteristics of the DevOps approach is the focus on cultural change.

The word “culture” comes from the Latin – cultura, meaning to cultivate or prepare for growth. It seems to me this serves as an excellent metaphor for fostering change in the organization.

“When a college is undertaking a broader reform effort, a culture of inquiry can be used to define a framework for action, cultivate the engagement of a broad range of practitioners and identify discrete action steps at various levels of the institution.”

The Research and Planning Group (RPgroup) of California Community Colleges published a paper on Building a Culture of Inquiry: Using a cycle of exploring research and data to improve student success (2010). The project was funded by Completion By Design and describes the use of an Applied Inquiry Framework: a cycle of evidence based improvement consisting of five stages:

  1. Defining a focus of inquiry
  2. Gathering relevant and meaningful evidence
  3. Engaging a broad range of practitioners and exploring the evidence
  4. Translating collective insight into action
  5. Measuring the impact of action

This cycle of evidence can certainly be applied to advancing a campus culture of innovation. As an example, consider how the adoption of Open Educational Resources (OERs) may impact online student success. This would serve as stage one – defining our focus of inquiry. In stage two, we gather research about OERs and student success (e.g. Multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post secondary students (Fisher, L. Hilton, J., Wiley, D. 2015)).

The third stage where we bring together a broad range of practitioners to explore the evidence, is critical in advancing a culture of innovation. It is at this stage we share insights, explore and challenge our collective beliefs and assumptions in an effort to get to the fourth stage, where we translate this collective insight into action.

In our scenario we would invite faculty who use OERs as well as those who are reluctant to adopt open texts for whatever reasons. Instructional designers, librarians, and others would be invited to the table as well to engage in discourse and inquiry. Unfortunately, in higher education we often work in isolation. Even our classrooms, both virtual and physical, are essentially closed environments. However, they could potentially become environments of inquiry and experimentation, where not only students learn, but the faculty and the campus community learn as well.

Stage four is where we test our assumptions and collect feedback and data. If we already have instructors using OERs, what do students think of the course and materials? Is there any data on student outcomes that we can compare to similar courses where the materials are not used? Such feedback need not be especially burdensome. The “lean” approach is used to test our assumptions and evaluate the feedback. A simple survey or focus group may provide enough information for the next stage.

The fifth stage, measuring the impact of our action, is not actually the final stage. In a culture of inquiry and innovation, the feedback we collect is used to inform subsequent iterations of our innovation. We may find that students appreciate access to the free digital text but they may in fact, be printing out each chapter as the course progresses. How does this inform our next iteration? Should we consider offering a low-cost print alternative?

It seems to me the Applied Inquiry Framework is similar in many respects to Design-based Research (DBR) – a qualitative research approach used in authentic educational settings. The goal of DBR is to learn about learning in real-world settings which are often complex and unique environments. The virtual classroom is such a setting and to improve learning in the online environment is an iterative process. If our goal is to advance a culture of change and innovation, we will need to change our approach to that which fosters experimentation and to share with others what we are learning even as we are learning.

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