The use of the word innovation in English text is on the rise according to Google’s ngram, and there is no sign that its use will level off anytime soon. As Emma Green points out in “Innovation: The History of a Buzzword” (Atlantic, 2013), innovation has not always had positive connotations. In the 19th century, it was much better to invent than innovate. Rolin Moe explores this in detail in, Defining (Adj. or V.) Innovation.
I few weeks ago, I attended the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) Innovate conference in New Orleans. This was the second annual conference since OLC combined the conferences on blended learning and emerging technologies (ET4Online). Similar to many conferences, Innovate showcases projects and products, however increasingly invites attendees to participate in design-thinking sessions to solve big problems. I co-led one such design thinking workshop on next-gen digital learning environments (or see LearningOS).
I was looking for what themes might emerge from keynotes, lighting talks, demos, and hallway conversations. This year I found innovation to be represented in two domains, as place and as practice.
Innovation as Place
2016 must have been the year of the innovation hub. Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox ColLABorative where faculty and staff play (experiment, fail, dare, ideate and iterate) to make “higher education more affordable and more accessible to more people.” The University of Michigan launched an institution-wide academic innovation initiative. This brings together several innovation labs, including the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, where they bring UMich edtech seedlings from around the university and scale them up for use all across the institution. Just down the road, a new hub has opened at Michigan State University. The Hub brings open meetings, public project boards, and cross-unit team space to improve the student experience using the agile development process. No, hubs aren’t new (Georgetown’s CNDLS is one of the early hubs and has been around for 15+ years), but they are on the rise, and by next year’s Innovate conference, several big universities will have “hubbed” their innovation, learning technology, pedagogical research, and faculty development groups.
Innovation as Practice
One of my favorite spots at the OLC Innovate conference is the Technology Test Kitchen, which brings a “makerspace approach for sharing innovative tools, new media, and approaches to integrating technology.” It has become a staple at OLC’s major conferences, and I think a critical part to an engaging event.
What makes the test kitchen work is the topically-driven booths where attendees can explore a technology or technique at their own pace. I played with Twine in the ‘gamification in education’ booth, recorded a video selfie in the reflection booth, and did some improv. Yes, improv!
In Justin Lee’s Innovation Dojo, he started by leading us in some improv to “bridge the gap from learning the fundamentals of innovation to becoming confident innovators.” If you have ever been to an improv show, you are familiar with the rule of “yes. . .and” which requires each person to build on the story, hopefully in a hilarious direction.
“The snail walked into the bar. . . yes . . . .and sat down at the piano to play a little ditty . . . yes . . . and spilled her drink. . . . “
Justin and his colleagues use improv with their faculty to warm up before digging into a design process. We did a little improv with the group:
Situation: narcoleptic toll booth operators
Resources: duct tape and good hugs
You have 60 seconds to come up with as many ways to solve this problem with these resources using the “yes/and” technique with your small group. GO! The test kitchen buzzes with ideas, from taping open eyelids to creating some sort of hug bot that keep that toll booth operator awake. Some teams even challenged the premise that the toll was needed and freed the operator to be a full-time hugging professional.
I have deployed this technique with several groups, and I have yet to find anyone that has flat our refused to deploy the duct tape and hugs toward some result.
We don’t have an official innovation hub at my institution (yet!), but I’m looking for and creating the places and practices of innovation in my work. I suspect that innovation hubs are sometimes created by accident, and I hope to learn more about those this year and bring this framework to OLC Innovate 2018!