Moving innovation into the mainstream

Kim, J. (2102) 5 ideas to support innovation in higher education, Inside Higher Education, February 6

Joshua Kim offers up five interesting strategies for encouraging innovation in higher education in his short blog.

1. Embrace that the Smartest Person on Campus is the Campus. (In other words, involve the whole campus through communication and collaboration)

2. Develop a Common Language Around Innovation: make sure everyone understands what innovation is and what it takes

3. Support the Core While Running Lots of Experiments

4. Practice Collaboration by Difference: put together people with different perspectives

5. Invest in a Continued Conversation: build mechanisms that ensure an ongoing conversation/discussion about change and improvement

Some of the responses to the blog are also interesting.


I would add a sixth:

6. Make innovation in teaching and learning a strategic goal of the organization.

In an earlier post, ‘Is there too much innovation in educationI reported on critics who feel there is too MUCH innovation in education. However, we have seen in other posts that the expansion of access to post-secondary education combined with economic realities or even austerity mean that for many institutions the status quo is unsustainable, without substantial increases in taxation or tuition fees. If those options are not possible, for whatever reasons, then either quality will drop or new approaches will need to be found.


Now from my travels and the travels of others, it is clear that in fact there is a great deal of innovation going on in teaching and learning, at least in Canadian universities and colleges. For instance, on the Contact North web site, there is a collection of 23 cases of innovation in Ontario universities and colleges that are well worth reading.

However, the web site is aptly named ‘Pockets of innovation.’ In other words there are lots of great experiments and innovations taking place in post-secondary education, but they are too often isolated, associated only with the one instructor, and don’t change the rest of the institution. Thus any hope of economies of scale through the widespread adoption of an innovation is lost.

What is needed is an innovation strategy, one that not only encourages innovation, but also evaluates and facilitates the spread of successful innovations across the institution and beyond. As Joshua Kim rightly says, there is a knowledge base or a set of practices that facilitate the development and transference of innovation, and we should be building on that knowledge base. (Joshua provides an excellent reading list on innovation in his post).

Also to move an innovation from an isolated pocket to a scale that works, often investment and extra resources are needed, for instance, to ensure the software application is robust enough to scale, or to improve its usability. There should be a set of criteria to asses the success of an innovation.

Above all, innovation in teaching and learning should be a strategic goal of the institution, and as such should determine priorities, budgets, reward systems, and include a set of policies and actions to support innovation. Improving learning outcomes or improving the quality of learning (however defined) should be in there somewhere, as should cost benefits.

Surely this would be better than just increasing the number of students in a lecture theatre or using video to relay the lectures to those that can’t get in (no, that’s NOT an innovation – it goes back more than 40 years).


Does your institution have a concrete strategy for innovation in teaching and learning? Is it working?

Should your institution have such a strategy? Or does the thousand blooms approach work best?





  1. From Rosamund Woodehouse
    York University

    Dear Tony,

    Thank you for your posting on this topic – as you will see below, it is very timely. I couldn’t find a link to respond to the item directly, so please accept this email in lieu. I’d love to see other comments and hope you will add a link soon!

    1. Examples of innovation strategies

    York University is in the second year of an initiative to promote innovations that will improve students’ experience (one innovation theme is eLearning). You can find more information at

    At the provincial level, the recent Drummond Report recommends that innovation in teaching should be recognized and rewarded, as follows:

    Recommendation 7

    Have post-secondary institutions redesign incentive systems to reward excellent teachers, as is currently done for researchers.

    Recommendation 8

    Teachers should also be rewarded for developing innovative methods of teaching and learning, with tenure and promotion linked to innovation.

    Recommendation 9

    “Safe spaces” should be created for faculty to try innovative approaches to teaching, and these attempts at innovation should be included in merit reviews. This innovation should be supported through funding and other types of recognition.

    Recommendation 10

    Successful models can then be scaled up and shared, both within the institution and with others. This would encourage new forms of campus culture to develop and lead to more interactions between teachers and students.

    2. Should institutions have innovation strategies?

    Promoting ‘innovation’ in post-secondary teaching is intuitively appealing. As with many things, the answer to the question of whether institutions should have innovation strategies is ‘it depends’! While ‘promoting innovation’ sounds simple, strategies need to be thought through with attention to the following questions:

    • What is ‘innovation’? Must an innovation be completely original?
    • Can innovations include adaptations of conventional strategies, or adoption of a widely-used strategy within a new context (eg discipline or even department)?

    Institutions need to be thoughtful about how they define, fund and recognize innovations across these three levels, and about how they define and assess ‘successful’ innovations. Promoting adoption and adaptation of strategies which are successful in other contexts might yield the most consistent gains. However, we have little comparative data to guide decisions about the kinds of innovation which will have greatest impact. For example, will innovations using inquiry-based methods lead to improvements that are similar to, or in some way greater than, incorporation of ‘active learning’ strategies in a lecture?

    Are all innovations equal? Faculty and administrators are not always aware of the evidence which could be used to guide selection and development of innovation proposals to maximize their potential benefits. Innovation strategies need to establish and use criteria for ‘evidence-informed’ innovations.

    Another way to embed evidence-informed approaches is to ensure that proposed innovations are developed and implemented in collaboration with knowledgeable educational or instructional developers. More radical approaches might emphasize educational design research, or perhaps the improvement research approach advocated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (see ).

    How do we balance priorities between novel and potentially high impact innovations that entail substantial changes in teaching (limiting the likelihood of uptake by other faculty) against innovations that make less impact but are easy for other faculty to incorporate into their usual teaching approach?

    What should an ‘innovation strategy’ include? It’s one thing to encourage faculty to innovate, but quite another to maintain, scale and get wide uptake of innovations! The FIPSE grants in the US provide a great example for promoting innovation and uptake. Institutional innovation strategies must also address the issues that you (Tony) have already identified in your work on integrating technological change into higher education.

    Given limited resources, what is the likely institutional impact of an innovation strategy in comparison to other approaches to improving teaching and learning? How will existing resources/approaches contribute to, or gain leverage through, an innovation strategy? Will they be given adequate resources to provide support for the strategy? What are the opportunity costs if not?

    Best regards,


    Rosamund Woodhouse PhD
    Writing Department
    York University

  2. First of all, Rosamund, thank you very much for a very thoughtful post.

    Second apologies to you and all readers – I had accidently turned off the comment function – it should now be back on, and yes, I do want to have comments on this topic.

    You raise some great questions, Rosamund, particularly about what constitutes an innovation. What may well be an innovation for one instructor may be something that others have done before, or may be common in another institution. Sometimes the only thing ‘innovative’ about an innovation is that one technology replaces another, without any change in the teaching (for instance replacing telephone-based audio-conferencing with Internet-based web conferencing). This may be innovative for the technical staff but not for the instructor.

    To some extent, I’m not sure individual cases matter so much. What’s more important is that there is a ‘culture’ of innovation, where people are encouraged and rewarded for at least ‘successful’ innovation, i.e. something that is carefully evaluated, found to lead to improvements, and is then spread to other areas or disciplines. There are lots of different ways to get to this.

    But you are right. It is not enough to ‘wish’ an innovation strategy. It has to be carefully thought through and properly implemented, and shoul;d be linked to other strategic goals for the institution.

    I look forward to other comments now you’ve got somewhere to post them – isn’t that innovative?

  3. Hi Tony,
    The minute I read your post title, I was reminded of the book “Diffusion of Innovations” (Fifth Edition). Although not specifically targeting education, Everett Rogers presents case studies of failure/success in the diffusion of innovations. The fifth edition also adds tthe diffusion of technological innovation and diffusion of innovations in organizations. By analyzing the elements of diffusion, the reader can figure out ways of speeding up the rate of innovation diffusion in any context.
    I do recommend this classic book to anyone interest in successfully diffusing innovations in society, education, etc…


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