I’ve worked in both schools and universities. In the former the ‘barrier’ to innovation is usually said to be time. In the latter it’s usually seen as the trials and tribulations of getting funding.
Whilst I agree that teachers work crazy hours and that both schools and universities are generally underfunded, I can’t help but think that the real reason institutional innovation is stifled is because of permission-seeking.
We all know that the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship – the fear that your actions might bring displeasure or punishment. People, I’m sad to say, don’t tend to give themselves the permission to innovate.
It might be slightly controversial to say so, but it’s easy to ask for time and money in an attempt to ensure a project is a success. And it’s also easy to say that something’s ‘not possible given current resources’. But time and money do not in and of themselves lead to successful projects.
What I think people are hankering after when they ask for money or time for innovation projects is approval. Might I suggest that truly innovative projects are unlikely to get such approval?
Some projects need huge levels of buy-in and support and funding and scoping. Most don’t.
A few weeks ago Lisa Phillips, a Masters student at the University of Oxford, asked for my help in scoping ‘rebellious approaches to educational technology’. I found the questions she asked so provocative and appealing I invited readers of this blog to complete her brief questionnaire.
Lisa followed up that questionnaire by interviewing me yesterday. With her permission, I recorded the conversation and have made it available below (it’s also here).
This study is an exploration of how innovation is defined within the educational technology field: what values and conceptions are ascribed to innovation, how and why programs and ideas get named as innovative, and whether or how we form a shared definition of innovation.
It’s quite long, but I’d love to hear any feedback!
I’ve been reading Reinventing Knowledge: from Alexandria to the Internet over the last couple of days. It takes an interesting approach, looking at intellectual history through institutions rather than individuals: The Library, The Monastery, The University, The Republic of Letters, The Disciplines, The Laboratory.
After I mentioned my belief that innovation is (generally) built upon standardization in a blog post about the Guardian Innovation in Education event, some people asked me for examples. I’m happy to say the book provided one in the shape of the medieval monastery:
By no means the only rule for monasteries, nor the oldest, nor the most innovative, [The Benedictine Rule] nevertheless achieved authoritative status on acount of its simple practicality and realistic expectations of the average monk’s capacity for ascetic discipline. Crafted for spiritual use, tested by time and repetition, and propagated by anonymous scribes, it bears a certain resemblance to the Christian scriptures themselves. Adhering to such a text enabled communities of monks to survive and thrive desipte the personal quirks and transient lifespans of individual members. In Benedict’s ideals and their evelopment in practice we see how monastic time played upon cycles of days, weeks, and years, endlessly repeating, to ensure the survival and stability of the monastery and of learning itself. (p.56-7)
The author continues a couple of pages later:
The genius of the Rule lay in the recognition that monks needed a specific regimen to make this spiritual goal an attainable reality. It was one thing to declare the entirety of one’s life, every moment, was to be devoted to God, another to know precisely what to do during all the minutes that followed sunrise, day after day. (p.59)
The idea of a platform for innovation, I think, is sound. It doesn’t really matter what the socially-negotiated/accepted base consists of, just so long as there is one to build upon. The best examples I’ve seen are a school where there was a workflow for everything, and my current employers where we have a team-constructed wiki that serves as a knowledge repository.
I’ll be given a couple of minutes to outline my position on innovation and, bizarrely, learning styles. The latter is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned given my experience in the classroom and this devastating critique on YouTube by Prof. Daniel Willingham. But innovation? I’ve definitely got a couple of things to say about that.
1. Innovation is predicated upon standardisation
Homogeneity in ecological terms, refers to a reduction in biodiversity. I think it’s important to make it clear at the outset that’s not what I mean when I’m talking about standardisation. What I mean by standardisation is a common, negotiated base upon which something can be constructed. This base could be a technology, it could be a set of practices, a calendar, defined workflows or communications channels.
Something I would change if I could go back and re-teach my early career would be the way that I approached innovation. In my current position at JISC infoNet and in my previous role as Director of e-Learning I’ve seen just how important the social negotiation and co-construction of a common baseline is. To mix metaphors, it’s about getting people on the same page and facing the same direction. Too often in my early career I went full-tilt in a different direction to others, thinking to myself that I could bring others onboard I’d reached ‘version 1.0’. Now I realise the importance of bringing in people much earlier than that.
Whilst it is may be possible to enforce standardisation in a top-down manner, effective leaders know that this is unlikely to encourage buy-in. As I argued in Chapter 10 of my thesis on digital literacies the process is at least as important as the outcome. Conversation and iteration is important because the very nature of innovation means that you don’t know necessarily know what’s going to happen next. As Woodrow Wilson famously stated, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow”.
Douglas Adams was being flippant when he called for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty” but, when it comes to innovation, demarcating such areas can be productive. Be focused. If, for example, your organisation is focusing upon methods of communication, getting sidetracked by existing problems (such as software incompatibilities) or irrelevancies (the staff dress code) is likely to be unhelpful. Get things right one at a time building towards a bigger picture. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Firstly, we’ve outsourced technological invention to the market. This means that early innovation (usually) involves taking something not designed explicitly with education in mind and finding way of using it for pedagogical purposes. By the time we’ve done that, of course, the market moved on and the process begins all over again. We’re like dogs chasing shiny cars.
The second reason, however, is due to education being a political football. Every year a raft of changes are enforced upon educational institutions, and schools in particular. Somtimes (and I’m looking at you, Michael Gove, with the English Baccalaureate) such changes are even made half-way through a school year! As a result, systemic innovation and ownership of the change process by overworked, underpaid staff is extremely difficult to achieve, even if they believe in the changes proposed. Some schools, such as Cramlington Learning Village manage focused, systemic change but these are few and far between.
Innovation is a tricky beast. You’re never quite sure when or where the next great idea will come from. There are, however, some ways to tame the monster. Here’s my three suggestions:
Focus on workflows: huge efficiencies can be gained by socially-negotiating these and using them as a standardised basis. In one school I used to work at, these were posted in every classroom for sanctions, rewards, book marking, everything. Review these often so they don’t become burdensome when the contexts change due to wider environmental factors.
Take a step back: as someone (hilariously) mentioned at a JISC programme startup meeting this week, “the early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” Make sure that everyone knows what they are there for. Have a discussion about the purpose(s) of education, if necessary.
Get everyone involved: when I say that you don’t know where the next transformational idea may come from, I’m serious. Get as many different angles on the problem as possible. And even when things are going well, have channels and methods of communication that allow people to make leftfield suggestions without being ridiculed.
What are YOUR thoughts on innovation in education?
A lot of people get stuck in the trap of trying to create something that is really innovative, something that doesn’t exist in the world today. But the truth is that an innovation that is really supercreative, that has resonance and power plus the ability to do extremely well in the marketplace, is already part of a clear set of products that already exists. In other words, they have a clear context, but there’s something novel about the way that an innovation is being thought about that really shifts the paradigm.
(DeVito, A. (2006) ‘Constantly Experiment’ in Winsor, J. (ed.) Spark: be more innovative through co-creation, p.162-3)
I’m reading the Spark at the moment, a book sent to me by Online MBA after ‘winning’ a competition (I commented on their blog). Spark is a great read with contributions from people who work at extremely innovative organisations such as Oakley, Nike and Herman Miller.
My belief that innovation thrives upon a bedrock of standardisation has been reinforced through the stories and experiences shared in the book. In other words, people have to have time freed up so they can kick ass. That comes through increased productivity, through streamlining – and to a great extent, automating – the mundane, the procedural and the administrative.
As a tangent, I’ve decided that the final version of #uppingyourgame is going to be subtitled ‘a personal guide to productivity’. Positive feedback from non-educators has convinced me that the ideas it contains are more widely applicable! 😀
I’m not attempting to get into a flame war with this post. It’s a personal reflection and more of a statement than an argument. Please comment appropriately! 🙂
In a perfect world, everything I use would be an Open Source product and have been produced using Open principles and philosophies. I’ve been part of a Becta-funded project into the use of Open Source Software (OSS) in schools, spent time with Linux as my sole operating system, and have given away (to anyone who’d have them) CDs and DVDs containing OSS.
But, without consciously aiming to do so, I’ve found myself using less and less Open Source stuff over the last year or so. Why? There’s several reasons.
1. Standards are to innovate upon
The reason that we have ‘standards’ in any area of life is to ensure compliance. But that isn’t meant to limit creativity and innovation, but to serve as a basis upon which it can flourish. Whilst there’s a lot of wonderful work going on in the OSS arena, there’s also a lot of people and projects engaging in catch-up.
2. Willingness to pay for software
When I was younger I had no or very little money. I’m far from rich now, but can nevertheless afford to pay for software that improves my productivity and/or outputs. This means that I’m using iWork instead of OpenOffice.org, for example.
3. Ecosystems and things ‘just working’
I was sorely tempted to purchase an Android-powered mobile phone recently. The main reason I didn’t? It had nothing to do with the specifications of the phone I had in mind. It was to do with access to the iTunes store. I listen to a lot of podcasts but, since moving completely to Spotify for my music, no longer sync my iPhone at all. Whilst I would be able to use software such as DoubleTwist to get content onto an Android-powered phone, it would mean syncing again and no access on-the-move. That, as they say, was a dealbreaker for me.
The other thing about tightly-controlled ecosystems is that, for all the whinging about control, DRM and monopolies they provide a seamless, enjoyable and fairly risk-free experience to the end user. I know, for example, that I’m going to get well-made app in the iPhone app store, and that books are going to be formatted correctly when using the Amazon Kindle store.
Finally, ecosystems mean that things ‘just work’. I continue to use Google’s online offerings because they all work together so well. I can get data in and data out easily, and transfer information between applications quickly. Taking any longer than necessary to do tasks isn’t high on my list of desirable features for any technology with a thesis to write…
4. Too much choice
The mantra of the ‘noughties’, if it had one, would have been ‘choice, choice, choice’. We were given a plethora of television channels, luxury goods and even hospitals to choose from. More choice, it was argued, led to higher standards.
However, the problem with too much choice is that you become paralysed in the process of decision-making. You need some kind of kind or heuristic to apply to the situation. Think about purchasing a laptop. There are so many makes, types, shapes and colours that it would take a great deal of time even to whittle it down to three choices.
The same goes with software. Once I’ve found a reputable and high-quality source of hardware or software, I’m likely to stick with that source unless something disastrous happens. So who do I look for when I’m making hardware purchases? Apple and Sony. Where do I look first for my online apps and software? Google.
5. Free is not OSS
I still use a lot of free software. But much of it is not OSS. There are new models evolving where the end product is made available either temporarily or permanently to users for free. (think of ‘freemium’ models, sponsored apps and the like!)
The fact that it is (usually) free is, like it or not, the biggest selling point of OSS. Whilst I and others completely buy into the philosoph(ies) behind it, with the increasing availability of free (as in beer) software undermines the appeal of OSS.
I am not advocating that people ignore OSS in favour of proprietary products. Far from it. What I am pointing out here is that the landscape is changing and OSS advocates need to change their approach. My recommendations:
One of the things I love about having a blog is that it’s a space to think things through. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and so needed to solidify my views by committing it to writing. 🙂
Interest can get you a long way in life. If you’re interested in something it fires your curiosity and motivates you to do something about it.
People interested in photography tend to buy a decent camera and practice until they become better.
Those interested in collaborative technologies tend to use them with others and evangelise their use.
Individuals interested in endangered species are usually the ones found donating their money and volunteering.
That’s why interest leads to an increase in awareness and skill level. That, according to Seth Godin in Linchpin, makes you immensely valuable:
The commonly-followed trajectory is from interest to a job/employment in that area. Which is great. What you need to make sure of, however, is that you don’t lose the relevant, up-to-date domain knowledge (green circle) in your trajectory to the right of the Venn diagram.
***Ewan’s gone back and added some clarification to his blog post. I’ve still got issues with points 3 and 4, but I’m pleased that we’re more in agreement than I initially thought. I thought about deleting this post, but I’ve learned that once something goes online, it should stay online!***
I like Ewan McIntosh. He’s a great guy: extraordinarily innovative and has worked hard for innovation within the educational community. However, I think that having moved away from the education sector he’s perhaps become a little out-of-touch with the realities of the classroom.
Normally that would be fine, but there are literally thousands of people who read his blog and are influenced by him. That’s why I want to take issue with a recent post of his entitled Why backward social-network-banning education authorities are wrong. I agree with the main thrust of the post about the folly of local authorities blocking access to social networking sites. However, Ewan concludes with the following:
What do I reckon could be done (only my tuppence worth, I add…) In a recent interview for Merlin John’s new Innovators series I outline how I believe things could change:
design tools and learning spaces that entice and delight young people, rather than tools we have to mandate them to use – if the kid had a choice, would they use that or the competition?;
plan less, creating time and room for movement as innovations come up;
stand still and do nothing: look at what is working in the world around you and steal, steal, steal (and give credit where it’s due);
if there’s a bandwagon, jump on it and see if it goes anyhere (a Coulterism);
don’t do pilots, just do the real deal from the start.
As educators, we should be using the best tools for the job. There are two ways to conceive of ‘best tools.’ The old thinking was that the ‘best tools for the job’ were those prevalent in industry. Hence we have schools teaching Microsoft Office to students in ICT lessons. That’s wrong.
But the opposite of that isn’t designing our own tools and learning spaces. It’s using the best tools for the job. Those are tools with a pedigree, a user base and enable us to get data out as easily as we put it in. That’s why I’m a big fan of Open Source Software. Designing our own tools and learning spaces can often lead to the creation of ‘creepy treehouses’, stripped-down versions of what’s available elsewhere and clunky functionality.
Knowing what Ewan usually says about these things, I think we’re probably actually in agreement about this. I just don’t think he’s put it very clearly in what I’ve quoted above.
2. Plan less
I actually think we need to plan more than we do currently as educators. Instead of planning in isolation, however, we need to plan in collaboration. We should be planning not only with other educators (in our own educational institutions and further afield) but with students. This is where real innovation occurs. 🙂
It’s the learning outcomes that are important, not the tools we use. Yes, students need to learn how to use tools, but that shouldn’t be the focus. So I agree that we should ensure we have time and space to allow for innovation, but we shouldn’t be leaving spaces to be filled with ‘cool tools’. That’s the wrong emphasis.
3. Stand still and do nothing
Granted, reflection is important. I spend a lot of time doing this and encourage my students to do the same as often as I can. But it’s not really a tactic that can be used that much. In fact it’s something that goes against 4iP’s (Ewan’s employer) mantra of ‘Do it first. Make trouble. Inspire change.’
Yes, we need to be aware of what others are doing. Yes, we need to take time to think about how what others are doing can be adapted for our own use. But we also need to get on and do it as well! Looking around you can equally lead to copying instead of innovation. Nothing can be imported wholesale and be expected to work perfectly without modification. Everything requires work.
Ewan sets up a false dichotomy when he states “don’t do pilots, just do the real deal from the start.” Piloting before rolling out can be the ‘real deal from the start.’ Take, for example, my rolling out of e-learning tools and approaches at the Academy. The only reason I was confident in getting every member of staff using Google Apps straight away is because I’d ‘piloted’ it in various ways in other schools. I knew all the features, likely problems, and anticipated training needs.
Without pilots of tools and approaches the person responsible for roll-out is constantly firefighting. That’s a stressful thing to do and not conducive to innovation. Whilst I understand the sentiment about making bold leaps and being uninhibited, that’s not always as possible as we’d like to think. There are other factors to consider, not least child protection and politics. Research is vital.
What do you think? Have I made fair criticisms? Are Ewan and I actually saying the same thing?
David Noble (@parslad), a Scottish educator with a long track record of innovative and supportive blogging and podcasting, interviewed me last month. David’s one of the founding members of EdTechRoundUp, so I’ve known him for a while. He too is doing an Ed.D. but hasn’t taken the easy route (as I have) and is actually doing some original research!