© Boloreport.com, 2012

Maxim Jean-Louis in a recent comment to my post on the e-learning outlook for 2012 referred to observations by Ben Levin who in an interesting interview with Cheryl Jackson argues that what the education system needs is not more innovation, but tested and evaluated improvements. In particular in the interview he singled out technology as an area that had failed to lead to improvements in the educational system. Ben Levin is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and formerly a top administrator (Deputy Minister) in the Ontario provincial government’s Ministry of Education. I strongly recommend you view the 12 minute video before reading this post.

In a similar vein, I heard recently of a dean in a Canadian university who complained bitterly at the continual cost of LMS upgrades (the event which prompted his comments), the push for the use of new technologies such as social media, and the pressure on faculty to constantly keep up with technological change. His comment to the Director of the Centre for Learning Technologies was: ‘All you guys want to do is to keep finding things to keep you employed. We don’t need innovation; we need stability in our teaching.’

Many of us working in the field of learning technologies take for granted the need for innovation, but it is incumbent on us that we do not push innovation for innovation’s sake. Nevertheless, my view is that at least for post-secondary education, we are in desperate need of innovation, and that e-learning and online learning needs to be a major component of changes to the system. In this post I want to discuss why I think that innovation is essential, and why learning technologies need to be a central part of such innovation, but also to discuss where there are areas of agreement as well as disagreement between Professor Levin and myself, because he raises some important points about the value or otherwise of innovation in education.

First it should be pointed out that Professor Levin was talking about the school or k-12 system, not post-secondary education. It should be noted that Ontario k-12 students perform really well in the PISA standardized tests in reading, mathematics and science, that there has been universal access to public schools in Canada for over 100 years and that over 90% of students successfully complete Grade 12 in Ontario. Where technology has been applied in the school system it has been used to supplement rather than replace the standard classroom. Lastly Ontario has one of the lowest teacher:student ratios in the world in its public education system (about 1:20). Professor Levin argues that all systems need some innovation, but the bulk of investment should be in maintaining well-tried processes and systems, and trying to improve them rather than change them.

However, I would argue that this is not the situation regarding post-secondary education in Canada. Yes, we do have excellent universities and two year community colleges, and we do have a high participation rate at over 50% of a cohort nationally going on to some form of public post-secondary education. However, it is only in the last 50 years that we have had mass post-secondary education, and the system continues to grow. (Ontario, which already has a post-secondary participation rate of 63%, is pushing for 70%, or another 60,000 places). This growth has not been matched by a similar growth in per-student funding anywhere in the Western world, resulting in much larger classes (average class size in many large Canadian research universities is 1:200 at undergraduate level). Furthermore, as in other countries, the post-secondary institutions have absorbed this increased growth by maintaining methods of teaching that worked well for an elite, low teacher:student ratio, but which are demonstrably inadequate in terms of developing high quality interaction with top research faculty (especially at the undergraduate level), and more pertinently, in developing the skills and competencies needed in today’s knowledge-based society.

Above all, Ontario in particular in Canada is facing three competing challenges:

  • the need to increase access to post-secondary education, to ensure an adequate supply of knowledge workers and to develop additional sources of economic growth to the current economy, which is heavily dependent on manufacturing and is struggling to get out of the 2008 recession;
  • the need to maintain and if possible increase the quality of post-secondary education if it is to remain economically competitive in a knowledge-based economy, by focusing more on the learning needs of 21st century students and workers;
  • lastly, and of particular significance for Ontario, to find ways to reduce or eliminate a current annual budgetary deficit of $14 billion, within five years.

Even if by some miracle the government is able to avoid cuts to the post-secondary budget, there is not going to be extra money for the other two challenges of additional growth and improved or even maintained quality. Basically, the status quo is untenable, not just in Ontario but in many other jurisdictions. There are several different options, such as increased taxation, or cuts in spending, but doing things differently to try to balance these three challenges, i.e. innovation, should also be at least part of the solution.

I would argue that Professor Levin’s distinction between improvement and innovation is a little contrived. One could argue that improvement is basically successful innovation. However, where I do agree with Professor Levin is that such innovation should be carefully piloted, evaluated and assessed before it is rolled out across a system as a whole.

Nevertheless, I think that the distinction is more than one of degree. I think there is a qualitative difference in the goals of innovation and improvement. Improvement means striving to do better something that is already considered successful and needs tweaking or continuous degrees of improved performance. In educational terms, this might mean higher scores on standardized tests. Thus the goals or learning outcomes remain the same – you just want to do the same thing a bit better. I think this is not a bad description of Ontario’s k-12 system.

Innovation though often means not just improvement but doing something radically different – Christensen’s disruptive innovation. This may mean seeking to reach new or different goals (or at least changing the emphasis within existing goals). And this is where I believe that post-secondary institutions universally are struggling. The outside world is changing faster than the post-secondary institutions can keep up with, given the challenges they are facing (more students and lower funding per student). Some of us also believe some of the goals of post-secondary education need to change, with more emphasis on skills, in particular knowledge management, and less on transmitting and remembering content. In particular, we need to look at what technology is doing outside the university or college, and the implications of this for teaching and learning. The focus on technology is not because it enables us to do the same thing slightly better, but because it requires us to do things differently in a world where technology changes so quickly.

Thus for me learning technologies, and particularly hybrid and online learning, provide opportunities for innovations in post-secondary education that are needed to meet the real challenges being faced by governments and post-secondary institutions. The trick is not to add on the technology to existing methods (which as Professor Levin has pointed out, leads to no significant learning differences) but to use technology to meet new goals that better reflect the needs of a knowledge-based society. This means redesigning not just our teaching methods but also our institutions to fully exploit the opportunities that technology provides.

Where I do agree with Professor Levin is that technology cannot bring about these changes on its own. It needs to be related to changes also in pedagogy (how we teach) and to identifying accurately the different learning outcomes that technology best supports. It also needs leadership and administrative changes that encourage innovation, and rewards successful and well-tested innovations. Above all, though, it depends on the recognition that the status quo is no longer possible and that change and innovation is necessary in our post-secondary institutions.




  1. Imminently sensible and not at all bold. I think Mr. Levin means there is too much adoption rather than too much innovation.

  2. Wonderful post, thank you. Very insightful. Your comments about simply layering technology onto existing processes reminded me of some research we did a few years back for the corporate world, and the C-suite executives at that time were saying pretty much the same thing — that if all you did was pour technology onto a problem it was like pouring concrete on your feet. That technological innovation without process improvement was meaningless. So their guidance was first think about how “what you are doing” needs to change and then think baout how technology could enable a new approach. Very helpful post.


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