Monday, July 13, 2009

What is Innovation?

As I have been working here at my new job, I have been thinking a lot about innovation. In previous postings, I have talked about how money, or the lack of it, influences change and innovation.

I am at a new college, College of the Redwoods, as Director of Instructional Design. It is an exciting time at an interesting college (think of the old Chinese curse): a ten thousand square mile college district needs to expand its online college with little to no money and with what I would consider a minimal infrastructure. This is just the sort of climate that breeds innovation. I also have a chance here to work with innovative people like Maggie McVay Lynch, the Dean of Distance Learning. If her name rings a bell it might be from her article on preparing students for online learning; it is often cited. We used these ideas in our health information management class. She is also responsible for bringing Sakai (called "MyCr" here as customized by rSmart), Gmail, and Google Apps for Education to the campus. Many campuses would consider these radical and outrageous moves - especially IT depts. - but they feel like the most natural solutions here.

So a definition of innovation that is useful here is one by David Yost who used to work for Apple's Advanced Technologies Group: "Another way of putting this is that an innovation lowers the costs and/or increases the benefits of a task. A wildly successful innovation increases the benefits-to-costs ratio to such an extent that it enables you to do something it seemed you couldn’t do at all before or didn’t even know you wanted to do." That is certainly what is happening here. We are moving from a linear, hierarchically organized "learning management system" to a "collaborative learning environment" that is much more inline with constructivist (and connectivist) models of online learning. One of the things that makes College of the Redwoods such an exciting place to be right now is that few here have any real idea how a combination of tools like Sakai and Google Apps for Education can dramatically increase the interactivity of their courses and build community among the students and faculty.

Yost also makes a note of James Burke's ideas on innovation: "...the web of innovation has been and always will be highly interconnected, how each innovation brings forth a paradigm shift which enables other innovations that were unthinkable in the previous paradigm."

I often wonder if ideas from people like George Siemens are not acceptable to some because Siemens is answering questions that some people are not asking yet. And when you find yourself in an institution that is short on money that their ability to see beyond their traditional positions also changes. So a few things have to be in place for innovation: the right people, ideas, and a catalyst (like a budget collapse!). Anyone of those may not be enough.

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  1. Most interesting book I've read on innovation recently has the boring title of The Future of Management (Gary Hamel). Lessons there for Higher Ed.

  2. Thanks! I will have to check that out.

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