December 2, 2015

Research on ‘academic innovation centres’ supporting online learning

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One of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

UT Austin Learning Sciences was one of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

Bishop, M. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early market Scan of Leading-edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers Adelphi ML: William E. Kirwan centre for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland

What is this paper about?

This is a paper about the development of ‘academic innovation centers’ in the USA. These go by a variety of names, such as ‘the Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘the Centre for Learning Sciences’, but they are basically integrating faculty development, instructional design and a range of other services for faculty (and in some cases also directly for students) to provide a locus for innovation and change in teaching and learning.


Information was collected in three ways:

  • a Leading Academic Change summit, to which 60 academic innovation leaders were invited to engage in discussions around how academic transformation efforts are unfolding in their campuses
  • interviews with 17 ‘particularly  innovative academic transformation leaders’, to talk about the evolution of teaching and learning centres at their institutions
  • a ‘national’ survey of campus centres for teaching and learning; 163 replied to the survey (there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA).

Main results and conclusions

The paper should be read carefully and in full, as there are some interesting data and findings, but here are the main points I was interested in:

  • the information collected in this study ‘seems to point to the  emergence of new, interdisciplinary innovation infrastructures within higher education administration.’
  • this includes new senior administrative positions, such as Vice Provost for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, or Associate Provost for Learning Initiatives
  • the new centres bring together previously separate support departments into a single integrated centre, thus breaking down some of the previous silos around teaching and learning
  • their focus is on online, blended and hybrid course design or re-design, improving faculty engagement with students, and leveraging instructional/learning platforms  for  instruction.
  • some of the centres are going beyond faculty development and are focusing on ensuring new initiatives lead to student success;
  • the leaders of these new centres are usually respected academics (rather than instructional designers, for instance) who may lack experience or knowledge in negotiating institutional cultures or change management


Despite the methodological issues with such a study, which the authors themselves recognise, the evidence of the development of these ‘academic innovation centres’ fits with my recent experience in visiting Canadian universities over the last two years or so, although I suspect this study focuses more on the ‘outliers’ with regard to innovation and change in USA universities and colleges.

What I find particularly interesting are the following:

  • the desire to ensure that faculty become the leaders of such centres, even though they may lack experience in bringing about institutional change, and in addition may not have a strong background in learning technologies. Perhaps they should read the book I co-wrote with Albert Sangra, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘, which directly addresses these issues;
  • the study found that neither technology nor even faculty success was the leading focus of these centres, but rather student success. This is a much needed if subtle change of direction, although the report did not suggest how the link between innovation in teaching and student success might be identified or measured. I suspect that this will be a difficult challenge.
  • where does the move to integrated centres leave Continuing Studies departments, which often have the instructional design and online learning expertise (at least in many Canadian universities)? The actual location of such staff is not so important as the intent to work collaboratively across institutional boundaries, but for that to happen there has to be a strongly supported common vision for the future development of teaching and learning shared across all the relevant organizational divisions. Organisational re-alignment can’t operate successfully in a policy vacuum.

Nevertheless if what is reported here is representative of what is happening in at least some of the leading U.S. universities, it is encouraging, although I would like to see a more rigorous and comprehensive study of the issue before I throw my hat into the air.

Contact North on Online Learning, Innovation, Flexibility and Open Educational Resources

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North continues to produce a range of interesting short pieces on different aspects of online learning. (Disclaimer: I am a Contact North research associate, and have contributed a few times.)

The April 9 edition of Contact North’s Online Learning News contains three such contributions (all these pieces are generally anonymously written):

The What, Why, Where, and How of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Dr. Rory McGreal, Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources answers these fundamental questions in a series of 10 short, informative videos, Open Educational Resources (OER) – A Video Primer.

There are two available at the moment, with others coming:

  1. What are open educational resources?
  2. Comparing commercial and open educational resources.

How to Design an Innovative Course

This piece suggests some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, including

  • being clear on the problem you are trying to solve
  • working in a team
  • applying technology appropriately to address the problem to be solved
  • evaluating and disseminating your innovation

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

I have recently visited a Canadian university developing a major strategy around flexible learning, and this short piece (by someone else) suggests a wide range of ways in which institutions can increase their flexibility, including:

  • course design and delivery options
  • learning recognition and credit granting
  • program completion
  • assessment
  • transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work .

These and many more items can be found on Contact North’s ‘Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors’, available both in English and French.

Click here if you wish to subscribe to Contact North’s newsletter.

Contact North on How to Design an Innovative Course

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Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Anon (2014) How to design an innovative course, Sudbury.Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

As reported in Contact North’s Online Learning News:

There is a lot of pressure these days on faculty and instructors to be ‘innovative’ in their teaching. But exactly what does being innovative mean? How do you go about designing and implementing an innovative course? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Will technology help? Learn a series of steps that can help you approach innovative teaching in a systematic way.


I found this article quite interesting. No author is given but they must be pretty smart to get this topic down to about 1,000 words….

How problem-based learning can help develop innovation skills

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© CTLT, UBC, 2013

© PBL Math, CTLT, UBC, 2013

Hoidn, S. and Kärkkäinen, K. (2014) Promoting Skills for Innovation in Higher Education A Literature Review on the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning and of Teaching Behaviours Paris: OECD Education Working Papers, No. 100, OECD Publishing.

In a previous post, I discussed a report from the OECD that showed in a broad way the relationship between different pedagogies and the kinds of thinking associated with innovation. In particular it suggested that:

the emphasis of programmes on practical knowledge, on student-led projects and on problem-based learning are reflected in the level of creative skills, of oral communication skills and of teamwork and leadership skills of students.

Here I look at a second paper that explores in more detail the relationship between problem-based learning and skills found among innovators. In particular:

This report … reviews the current evidence on the effectiveness of problem-based learning compared with more traditional approaches in higher education teaching [and] explores the extent to which problem-based learning can be an effective way to develop different discipline-specific and transferable skills for innovation. 

Main results

  • Research, primarily from the field of medicine, shows that problem-based learning appears to be beneficial in fostering certain aspects of skills for innovation.
  • [In particular] …problem-based learning appears to be beneficial in fostering long-term retention and knowledge application, developing thinking and creativity skills, as well as social and behavioural skills (e.g. problem-solving, critical thinking, motivation, self confidence, team work).
  • By contrast, no clear difference between problem-based learning and traditional lecture-based teaching emerges as to performance in tests.
  • The benefits of PBL over traditional approaches seem to become more visible when examining higher education students’ long-term retention of knowledge. While PBL students may be slightly inferior to traditional students in overall knowledge and competence, they appear to be superior in long-term recall and retention.
  • Students in PBL appear to employ more productive approaches to study, have better interpersonal skills and appear to be more motivated than students in more traditional higher education programmes.
  • Despite the promising evidence linking problem-based learning and effective teaching in higher education to certain aspects of skills for innovation, more work is needed in this area. In reality there is no dichotomy between problem-based learning and “traditional” teaching and learning approaches  – policymakers and practitioners would benefit from a better understanding about which specific practices are effective for fostering different skill sets.
  • Faculty plays a pivotal role in enhancing student learning. Instructors can be trained to apply certain instructional behaviours that have been shown to be effective or to use student-centred forms of teaching and learning such as PBL and other methods that facilitate deep approaches to learning. Faculty can learn to give clear explanations and prompt feedback, present well-organised materials, ask students challenging questions, encourage student participation in the classroom and show concern and respect for students and student learning.

Implications for online learning

Although this paper does not discuss online learning or technology-based approaches to PBL, online learning can provide more flexibility and opportunities for problem-based learning, although to date, where problem-based learning and online learning have been combined, it is usually in a hybrid model. A common design is for students to gather in class for the definition of the problem, and instruction on the key steps to be taken, then to work collaboratively in small groups online on problem solution, returning to class for presentation and discussion of each group’s conclusions. However, there are also examples of fully online courses using a problem-based or inquiry-based learning approach.

In either hybrid or online learning modes, though, it is critical to give clear guidelines and structured steps to be taken to solving problems, especially for students who are new to this teaching approach. It is also important to ensure that assessment actually measures skills in problem-solving and critical thinking, and is not just a test of comprehension. Once again, it is not so much the mode of learning that matters as the quality of the teaching methods and assessment within that mode.


The study provides a pretty good overview of new developments in teaching in higher education, and where some of them are taking place. Indeed the paper recognizes that PBL started at MacMaster University in Canada in the 1960s. As the report notes:

[At that time] medical students lacked clinical reasoning, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. There was concern that medical schools put a too heavy emphasis on memorisation of potentially irrelevant or soon-to-be-outdated facts instead of skills necessary to practice medicine. At the same time, medical students themselves seemed to be disenchanted and bored with their education because they had to absorb vast amounts of information of which much was perceived to have little relevance to medical practice.

The paper is worth reading, not so much for its conclusions, which are not startling, but because it provides an excellent summary on the research on how students learn at a higher education level, and the implications for the training of faculty. In essence, problem-based learning is valuable but depends on the learner having sufficient ‘foundational’ knowledge to enable them to tackle problems. This foundational learning may benefit from more traditional or formal approaches to teaching. The main value though of the paper is that it provides evidence-based guidelines for effective teaching.


Producing ‘innovative’ graduates and how online learning can help

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© Heath Robinson 1939

© Heath Robinson 1939 – it’s not just engineers needed

Avvisati, F., Jacotin, G., and Vincent-Lacrin, S. (2013) Educating Higher Education Students for Innovative Economies: What International Data Tells Us, Tuning Journal for Higher Education, No. 1

Hoidn, S. and Kärkkäinen, K. (2014) Promoting Skills for Innovation in Higher Education A Literature Review on the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning and of Teaching Behaviours Paris: OECD Education Working Papers, No. 100, OECD Publishing.

Innovation, higher education and online learning

OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has recently published two interesting papers which while not specifically about online learning, address issues that are very relevant for teaching in higher education. These papers give some useful directions for the design of online learning for developing the skills and knowledge that lead to innovation.

In this post, I will discuss the paper by Avvisati et al, and in another post the paper by Hoidn and Kärkkäinen.

The paper’s goal and methodology

Avvisati et. set out to address the following question:

What is the broad mix of skills needed in innovative societies and sectors, and how can higher education institutions and innovation policies contribute to fostering this mix?

Avvisati et al. analysed the responses to two OECD surveys of tertiary graduates five years after their graduation, namely the twin surveys Reflex and Hegesco.

Avvisati et el. define “highly innovative” professionals as those working in innovative organisations and involved in the introduction of innovations; they represents on average 56% of tertiary-educated professionals in the 24 or so mainly European countries that were surveyed.

Main results

  1. Innovation requires a broad mix of academic subject domains. For instance:
    • in manufacturing industries, 50% of ‘highly innovative professionals’ have an engineering/science degree
    • in business and finance industries, the bulk of the highly innovative workforce is formed by business graduates, social sciences graduates, and law graduates
    • a significant proportion from all fields [of study] work in a highly innovative job: 60% of engineering/science graduates; 58% of arts/agriculture graduates; 50% of education graduates

This conclusion has important policy implications, as innovation policies concerned with human resources tend to have a narrow focus on scientists and engineers (and sometimes entrepreneurship). An overly exclusive focus on the training of scientists and engineers to promote innovation is largely misplaced, given that other graduates do also contribute significantly to innovation and that the relative importance of the manufacturing sector, where STEM graduates predominate, [is] decreasing in most OECD economies.

2. The critical skills that distinguish innovators from non-innovators the most are:

    • creativity (“come up with new ideas and solutions” and the “willingness to question ideas”), followed by
    • the “ability to present ideas in audience”,
    • “alertness to opportunities”,
    • “analytical thinking”,
    • “ability to coordinate activities”, and the
    • “ability to acquire new knowledge”

3. ‘Highly innovative professionals’ tend to agree that universities developed mostly their thinking and learning skills (analytical thinking and the ability to rapidly acquire new knowledge) as well as their domain-specific expertise (mastery of their own field or discipline).

4. At the same time, respondents were dissatisfied with the level of social and behavioural skills acquired through their university programme; ‘presenting ideas’ and ‘coming up with new ideas and solutions’ were not considered to be a particularly strong point of university education.

5. Respondents also reported that their progress as students was consistently and significantly associated with the quality of teaching and learning inputs:

    • graduates are more likely to participate in innovation processes after having attended …programmes stressing practical knowledge, such as student-led projects and problem-based learning
    • theory-based forms of instruction, such as lectures and the learning of theories and paradigms, have a positive, but weaker association with innovation
    • the emphasis on theoretical knowledge and conceptual understanding are particularly associated with … analytical thinking, in acquiring new knowledge, and in writing
    • the emphasis of programmes on practical knowledge, on student-led projects and on problem-based learning are reflected in the level of creative skills, of oral communication skills and of teamwork and leadership skills of students
    • thus a diverse offer of pedagogies is the most effective way to foster all skills for innovation in the working population.

6. The mastery of one’s own field is not among the very top skills that differentiate the most highly innovative from less innovative professionals. Many of the critical skills for innovation can be fostered in all domains, even though it could take a different shape from one subject to the other.

7. There is overall no strong evidence of a shortage (or coming shortage) of tertiary education graduates in STEM disciplines in the OECD area.

Comment and discussion

Some care is needed in interpreting these results. It should be noted that they reflect the views of ‘innovative workers’ five years into post-degree employment, not employers or more senior executives or managers, and most of the responders would have been European. Innovation itself is not clearly defined other than it’s what people in the survey say it is. For most of us, these results will not appear surprising, and will reinforce beliefs that are held by many – but not all – academics. However, the results of this study do challenge conventional wisdom sometimes found among policy-makers and the general public.

I draw the following conclusions from this study:

  • we need to continue to support a wide variety of disciplines and subject domains in our universities if we really want innovation across our society and economy; STEM subjects are important for innovation in many but by no means all areas of innovation in work and society
  • as always in pedagogy, it is not a question of either theory or practice, of information transmission or knowledge management. We need diverse approaches to pedagogy/teaching methods, and these need to be fine tuned within different subject domains
  • more empirical work needs to be done on the link between productive innovation, intellectual skills development, content, and teaching methods
  • nevertheless, it seems clear to me that knowledge management, independent learning and lifelong learning will become increasingly important skills for the promotion and development of innovation in work and society
  • learning technologies and in particular online learning can contribute significantly to developing skills that will foster innovation, but the technology must also be wedded to appropriate teaching methods
  • teaching for innovation is still more art than science, but it is not totally a shot in the dark.


I will review the other OECD paper that is a literature review of the effectiveness of problem-based learning for promoting skills for innovation in higher education, and what that might mean for online learning.