Thursday, April 2, 2015

What is Innovation?

This may seem like a simple enough question, but it came up recently and I wanted to examine it a little further.  During my travels to St. Olaf, Carleton, Luther, and Macalester last week, I was reminded of just how many professors and colleges are pushing the envelope, but may not see this as innovation.  The idea that only new technologies are innovative has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it was vibrantly illustrated during some of my conversations.

In the course of one discussion, a faculty member said they would not consider themselves innovative and yet offered at least five examples of how they use various online components and learning technologies, including clickers, to impact learning in their classroom.  This begs the question as to whether the use of a technology (clickers) is innovative or the way in which that technology is used to enhance learning?  Trying new and different things instead of tying it to a new piece of tech seems to be common sense, but sometimes gets lost when we talk about innovation.

In another discussion it was pointed out that as a word, innovation is highly overused and creates a false narrative that only those on the far fringes are progressive or effective and that anything else is somehow "less than" or inferior.  What may be considered wildly cutting edge to one person may be commonplace to another and therefore easily dismissed.  It is important to put this word and more importantly the practice of experimentation in the classroom in the proper context.

Merriam Webster gives the standard definition of innovative as something new, but then throws the word novelty after the semicolon.  Novelty is defined as "impulsive or unpredictable."  While no one would argue that a professor should be completely impulsive or unpredictable, isn't that what is happening when a faculty member experiments with a new technology, flipping the classroom, creating an active learning environment, or blending online resources?

These conversations have led me to re-evaluate how I will use the word innovation moving forward.  A technology or even a process is not really innovative until it is experimented with.  How that technology or method is applied and the impact on teaching and learning is the real test and should be paramount to just saying something is innovative because it is new.  Newness is one thing, impact is another.

Please leave a comment and perhaps your own definition of innovation.