January 22, 2017

Thinking about innovation in higher education

© Lyn Topinka, 2006

Stokes, P. (2011) Want innovation? Remove the barriers Inside Higher Education, October 27

This article by Peter Stokes, an executive vice-president at Eduventures, has some interesting ideas about how to promote real innovation in the higher education system. In principle, he’s suggesting US Federal funding for a conventional public institution to set up a parallel organization to test alternative ways of organizing, delivering and assessing teaching and learning, but within the Federal regulatory environment to stop diploma mills benefiting from the funding.

This of course is a US model, but the idea has some merit for other jurisdictions. It could be argued that innovation comes from the bottom-up, and can’t be top down, but the example he gives is of commercial companies such as Xerox or Bell creating arms-length R&D organizations free of the commercial pressures of a large company. The charge or mandate for such models would be to maintain or improve the quality of graduates at less cost than the current system

This could work with a large, prestigious organization such as MIT or, in Canada, UBC. The external funding from government for the innovative structure takes away some of the risk to the institution, with the institution still responsible for ensuring quality within the innovation, but through a separate mechanism than through the traditional governance of the institution (this in itself would be a worthwhile experiment). In other words, faculty who are interested in innovative approaches to teaching could be seconded to the parallel institute, which could be reorganized completely differently from a conventional university.

I could imagine for instance a ‘hybrid’ organization, that makes use of the nearby campus, but for very focused and specific activities, while it stretches to develop as much digitally as possible (e.g. virtual labs combined with some hands-on labs, new inter-disciplinary post-graduate qualifications for lifelong learners based on modules, or new offerings built around OERs). The innovation fund could encourage new governance and organizational models, new forms of qualification, cost analyses, and evaluation of other benefits such as increased access, or unintended consequences, as well as innovative teaching and the learning outcomes such teaching generates.

There are certainly organizations in Canada, such as BCCampus, or the fledgeling OOI in Ontario, that could act as independent intermediaries, facilitators or evaluators, so that there is accountability without direct government control over such projects, even if funded by provincial or federal government grants.

If we accept that the current model of funding an expanding higher education system is not sustainable, at least without a sharp drop in the quality of teaching, especially at an undergraduate level, the investment in some alternative models could have a very large return over the long run, and provide a real competitive advantage to a state, province or country in a knowledge-based society.



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