Some thoughts on innovation

The time between years and semesters is often a good time to take stock, reflect, and plan ahead. This year, the idea of innovation has come up again and again in my thoughts, for a number of obvious reasons, not least the clown show that was 2020 (and that continues into 2021, with COVID-19 cases rising, the federal government being AWOL, and fascist assholes trying to overturn the election). While the situation has required (and continues to require) lots of sudden innovation, I also work for a educational development center that has the word “innovation” in its name: I better make sense of what this means to me, and what it means in the current situation.

To me, the main take-away is that when people talk about innovation, they usually mean new technologies and use of new technologies, but that’s not where most of the innovation has happened and where most innovation is currently needed. Innovation often comes across as chasing the next shiny new thing (and throwing money into shiny new black holes), instead of thoughtfully exploring where we have to make new things—or make things new. (And by “things,” I mean not just things but also practices, ideas, institutions, and so on.) My point here is that innovation should be broader than tech, and the innovation that is currently needed is definitely mostly non-tech! In fact, I find that most innovation is needed in the support of the people who make academia happen, in the processes, norms, and habits of our work, and in the mindsets that support that work.

The distinction between is and should is really important. My academic involvement with the study of innovation (and the diffusion of innovation) in public policy is now a few decades in the past. But it seems to me that the garbage can model is still alive and well: There is a stack of solutions waiting for a problem, and now that a major problem has arrived, people open the can and grab the last thing. And that may be Zoom, or online proctoring services—or the online lectures that I created years ago for an online summer course. OK, while I do enjoy the snarkiness of “garbage,” this doesn’t mean that the process is irrational or the solutions are actually trashy. Maybe we should instead think about policy entrepreneurs in Kingdon’s sense jockeying for advantages to advance their pet causes. Lots of this going on in academia.

In any case, here I want to talk about what innovations we should pursue, what innovations are needed. And when I think about innovations in that way, I want innovations not just to be new in some way. I want them to stick around for a bit, I want them to make sense, lead us towards an important goal. New stuff that just does the same old things isn’t innovative. And new stuff that’s useless isn’t innovative. So we need to pay attention to the goals of our new practices, things, etc.: are the goals important? Part of that importance is whether they serve the needs of the situation, the context, the time, etc. I’d also like to turn this question around: Do our (supposed) innovations shape the situation, the context, the time, the institutions, etc. in a good way, lead us in the needed direction? If they don’t, we may be innovative but still wasting our time.

And another point that needs to be repeated: Innovations are not just new things or the use of new technologies, though that can be part of innovation. I remember workshops on using iPods in teaching, maybe 15 years ago. Not, ahem, a lasting addition to our teaching repertoire. Some things that became true innovations—think, for example, about Team-Based Learning—were connected with new technologies (such as If-AT cards) but did not require them.

As the past year has shown us, innovation is often the result of crises that create pressure for institutions to change. We currently encounter several such crises: Most urgently, COVID-19 has turned daily life, off and on college campuses, upside down and forced much human interaction online. The Black Lives Matter movement highlights systemic and personal racist violence and heightened the demand for just social institutions, including educational institutions. More long-running pressures for change did not stop: The student population changes (more older students, more first-generation students, more low-income students, more students from minoritized populations), forcing institutions of higher education to adapt in order to remain viable. For the last couple of years, we’ve encountered a mental health crisis among students that, in times of COVID, is likely to get worse. There’s an economic crisis that threatens the livelihood of people, and the finances of students, their families, and, as a result, educational institutions. And, obviously, there’s an ongoing student loan crisis. There are parental crises as many university employees have their children at home during COVID, juggling child care, homeschooling, and working remotely all at the same time (and possibly keeping it secret from their employers). I am sure we can identify more crises.

Kahn (2018) argues that it is important to view innovation as an outcome, a process, and a mindset. As an outcome, we have to ask, to what end do we innovate? What should be the result of innovation? And viewing innovation as a process and a mindset, we have to ask, who will innovate, what resources will the innovators need, what knowledge, ability, and skills will they have to develop, and what mindset will be needed for the institution to successfully innovate and adapt to the rapid and slow changes in its environment?

Based on Kahn’s categories, here are some notes on where I see our most urgent areas of innovation. This is clearly a limited view, to be added to and revised. But for me it’s a starting point for further thought: What innovations have we been able to achieve this last year? What innovations do we need to work on next, or right now?

Outcome and ends

We have to innovate in order to:

  • Include new populations of students and assure their educational success: Non-traditional students, students who are first-generation college students, students who are from low-income families, including those who have to work in order to finance their studies, students who are members of racial-ethnic-culturally minoritized groups, students with disabilities, …
  • Make teaching, learning, scholarship, and other academic activities resilient against crises such as pandemics. This includes providing care for students encountering traumatic and disruptive experiences, care in teaching as well as through institutional services.
  • Maintain our focus on teaching and engagement while at the same time supporting high-quality research, scholarship, and other academic and disciplinary activities.
  • Offer a range of learning modalities—online, in-person, hybrid, hy-flex—that meet student demand for such courses, assure high quality of pedagogy in whatever modality—and do so in a way that is characteristic of the instructor’s approach to teaching and learning, of the discipline’s approach, of the institution’s approach.
  • Attract and retain a diverse group of high-quality faculty that represent the range of identities present in academia and society as well as a wide range of intellectual and disciplinary approaches.
  • Solve human problems that the current Eurocentric approach to knowledge has failed to handle, let alone solve. The most prominent current example, maybe, is how to get large numbers of people to keep each other safe in the midst of a global pandemic.
  • Transform into institutions of learning that are relevant, that find their place, in a world that is not Euro-US-centric and not in need of essentially colonial-European educational institutions.


We have to innovate procedures:

  • The way faculty teach:
    • flexibility to incorporate principles of good teaching in all learning modalities (online, in-person, hybrid, etc.);
    • Anti-racist and inclusive teaching;
    • Pedagogy of care and trauma-safe teaching;
  • By enabling faculty to combine high-quality teaching and research productivity through
    • Career and project planning support;
    • Resources for conducting research;
    • Resources for teaching innovations, including online teaching technologies;
  • By providing mentoring, other faculty development support, as well as work-life balance and community resources that enable them to build successful careers without burning out in a matter of years;
  • By changing hiring processes to become more inclusive;
  • By creating structures that help retain those faculty that the institution tends to lose even if successfully hiring them (by providing mentoring, faculty development support, etc. etc. etc. see above).


These goals and process needs require the following mindset changes:

  • Members of the institution have to approach change with a learning mindset—risk-taking has to be rewarded, innovation encouraged, a growth mindset towards failure has to be made possible through institutional reward structured;
  • Members of some/most academic institution (talking at least about the US context), many of which are Predominantly White Institution, have to develop deeper awareness of discriminatory practices such as micro- and macro-aggressions, hidden assumptions about how things are done, and how institutional traditions, norms, and processes disadvantage some faculty and staff;
  • As part of the previous point, academic departments have to interrogate established curricula, disciplinary values, norms, markers of success, etc., and have to be willing to change those that turn out to be discriminatory or not demonstrably connected to academic outcomes;
  • Academics have to move away from a mindset of individualistic achievement, competition, and overwork, to one in which collaboration is not only valued but also perfected, with a focus on academic knowledge production, learning, insight, and problem solving, not on the production of individual academic stars that may perform admirable feats but institutionally produce less than what a smartly organized academia can achieve.

In order to be successful, universities have to focus on their personnel and their needs. That’s where innovation has to happen right now.

The list here is just a quick draft—where else is innovation needed?

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