Innovation : Questions of Boundary

Innovation : Questions of Boundary

Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

(a project in the ESRC Learning Society Programme)

Working Paper No.2

ÔInnovationÕ: questions of boundary

Harold Silver, Andrew Hannan & Susan English

December 1997

ISBN: 0 905227 99 9

Faculty of Arts and Education, University of Plymouth, Douglas Avenue, Exmouth EX8 2AT

Tel: 01395 255463 Fax: 01395 264196 E-mail:

 1997 by Silver, Hannan & English

ÔInnovationÕ: questions of boundary


ÔInnovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher EducationÕ project

University of Plymouth, UK

The ÔInnovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher EducationÕ project (award reference L123251071) forms part of the Learning Society Programme of the Economic and Social Research Council. In its first year the project was funded by the ESRC and the Higher Education Quality Council.

NB This paper is an early distillation of our thoughts, written less than four months after the launch of our project and before we had undertaken any analysis of our case study visits to institutions.

ABSTRACT The purpose of the discussion is to move from commonly held assumptions about innovation and the innovator to a wider view of the levels at which innovations occur, and the contexts in which they need to be interpreted. The analysis takes account of the impact of national programmes which favoured innovative change in the 1980s and 1990s, the influence of new technologies, and contextual changes which in general have influenced how innovation is perceived, and how innovators perceive themselves. These contexts and perceptions are viewed as ÔboundariesÕ in which innovation is framed.

ÔInnovationÕ and ÔchangeÕ, often used interchangeably, became key vocabularies in educational practice and policy in the 1980s. They were used as headings in national reports, were fundamental to government department and agency initiatives in information technology and in teaching and learning. They appeared in institutional and other contexts as means of solving urgent problems, particularly those associated with expansion and financial pressures. They were the focus of increasing educational and economic literatures internationally, for example those emanating from the activities of European community organisations. This kind of discussion of the meanings of innovation centred particularly on strategies for successful industrial and commercial performance in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In education ÔinnovationÕ often seemed coterminous with Ônew technologyÕ. In addition to universitiesÕ own funding of developments directed towards enhanced learning, significant external funding was secured from initiatives of the Department for Education and Employment and its predecessors, and of the funding councils. An increasing proportion of these resources was directed towards computer assisted learning or other technological developments. The meanings or boundaries of innovation, however, have not sat comfortably with the self-perceptions of educators engaged in these recent developments. The ÔboundariesÕ of innovation are defined by its locus and contexts, and by the interplay of the participantsÕ interpretations.

Innovation in higher education has generally been taken to mean a planned process of introducing change, intended to bring about improvements or solve or alleviate some perceived problem. Such changes may be new to a person, course, department, institution or higher education as a whole. An innovation in one situation may be something established elsewhere, but the implication of these assumptions is that it is a departure from what has been done before. It is not always obvious whether an innovation is an act of creation or of adaptation (or imitation), and innovation may not in fact be ÔnewÕ, any more than invention may be without precedent. The distinction between an invention (which may or may not be used) and an innovation (which may be its later exploitation) has been crucial to discussion by economists (Schumpeter, 1976, p. 132; Freeman, 1982; Stoneman, 1983, chs 2 and 3). There are social, situational factors involved in determining both invention and innovation. Some of the analysis of the trends suggested by these concepts and distinctions raises a number of difficult questions for a discussion of higher education. A new way forward in one place may already have been abandoned in another place for a more promising alternative. Not only is it difficult to determine what is ÔnewÕ or ÔoriginalÕ in a complex social process, but intention and practice are also surrounded by tangled interpretations and judgements.

Higher education teachers may often have been engaged in the 1980s or 1990s in development activities financed, for example, by an Ôinnovations fundÕ or the expressly innovative intentions of an institutional response to Enterprise in Higher Education funding. They may in some contexts have been classed as Ôchange agentsÕ, more rarely, however, as ÔinnovatorsÕ. A section of their application for promotion may have included Ôinnovation in teaching and learningÕ in one of the headings. Being aware of other developments or priorities in their institution, department or discipline, however, they have not readily described themselves with what may be the socially isolating title of ÔinnovatorÕ.

ÔInnovation in teaching and learningÕ, now a regular feature of discussions of higher education, is also a difficult vocabulary. Although used as a single concept, this kind of innovation may not have similar implications for both. An innovation in the former may not result in improvements or change of any kind in the latter. There is no necessary relationship between the two. Factors affecting learning in any situation may be too complex for a connection to be established Ð or perhaps even in some cases to be intended. An innovation in studentsÕ learning procedures may be independent of any ÔteachingÕ in its traditional sense. A change in what teachers do may have little or no effect on what or how students learn. Introducing new technology is not necessarily innovative for learning, if it simply means delivering lectures by video to larger groups of students. Putting lecture notes on the Internet may not be different from photocopying them (itself once seen as an innovation). Some uses of Computer Assisted Learning may actually make learning less student-centred. American Ôinstructional technologyÕ was once seen as Ôa step forward because the improvement of learning should be the main objective… whereas much of its effort…has hitherto been concentrated on doing better what perhaps should not be done at allÕ (Mackenzie, 1970, p. 175).

Apart from issues of intention there are others relating, for instance, to the concept of planned or deliberate change, which often means the bureaucratically sanctioned (perhaps as part of a programme, institutional policy or initiative). This, in contemporary higher education, may often mean a focus on projects and programmes, bypassing the incidental and informal process of transformation that can move the whole process of teaching and learning from one paradigm to another. The notion of innovation may embrace gradual change as well as cataclysmic transformation, following KuhnÕs distinction between Ônormal scienceÕ and Ôscientific paradigm shiftÕ (Kuhn, 1970).

Innovation is conditioned by institutional or systemic structures, departmental or disciplinary cultures, individual history and priorities. Deliberate change at any level has policy, cultural and ideological contexts. Whose, then, is this Ôplanned processÕ? At the level of the individual teacher the process may be radical, incremental, creative, adaptive Ð a private or negotiated attempt to improve outcomes of the teacher-learner dialogue, or of the encounter mediated by technology. It may be in response to policy or financial pressures or opportunities. At the level of department, faculty or institution innovation is almost inevitably driven by policy, itself in response to externally or structurally imposed changes. Innovation at this level may be similar to the individual initiative, or may be designed to encourage it, but it is more likely to aim at more widespread and systematic change, responding, for example, to modularisation or the temptations of nationally available, targeted finance. The ÔsystematicÕ nature of this level of innovation brings the process closer to entrepreneurial features of industry and commerce, where

…it is change that always provides the opportunity for the new and different. Systematic innovation therefore consists in the purposeful and organized search for changes, and in the systematic analysis of the opportunities such changes might offer for economic or social innovation (Drucker, 1985, p. 31. AuthorÕs italics).

In this situation innovation may be a short-term strategy for maximising profit or overcoming an immediate or imminent crisis, or it may be a long-term market strategy. It may or may not be coherent or consensual, depending on the resolution of tension between a common interest and the unequal power and different understandings of the participants. Who drives the search and the analysis? Whose innovation, and for what purpose?

Several clarifications are essential at this point. First, innovation may aim to bring about improvement, but does not equate to improvement. Innovation involves intention, planning, effort, but may either fail to produce outcomes, or may produce dubious or ÔwrongÕ outcomes. Second, ÔimprovementÕ is itself controversial, as much social theory and social history has suggested in recent decades. Improvement, in FoucaultÕs wide-ranging analyses of institutions and processes, may be interpreted to mean a more effective form of control. The educational ÔinnovatorsÕ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries may have wanted to secure improvements that some historians have interpreted as limited and repressive. For example, histories of ÔinnovationÕ and ÔimprovementÕ have sometimes omitted the monitorial education of the early nineteenth century from the narrative. Despite being the most far-reaching Ôplanned changeÕ of the period, the monitorial system, by which a single teacher controlled the teaching of large numbers of children by other children, has not fitted historiansÕ ideological conceptualisation of innovative improvement: it was not ÔliberalÕ or ÔprogressiveÕ. Third, Ôwhose innovation?Õ is a question directed at decisions about what teachers do, or at changing the conditions of learning, or possibly both. It is easier, at departmental or institutional levels of decision making, to change the structures, resources, opportunities, for student learning, than to change the culture of teaching. It is possible at these levels to consider access to resources, the availability of guidance and support, the logistics and sustainability of innovation. Technological, organisational and other changes can at these levels be the outcome of decision, arrived at by fiat or negotiation. Although curricular change may sometimes imply changes in both teaching and learning processes, it is immensely more difficult to achieve any basic change in attitudes towards teaching than in the organisation of the curriculum. Where changes in the ways teachers teach are implied, the change requires commitment and conviction, persuasion and recruitment. It is for this reason that the curriculum and its ÔdeliveryÕ are easier to explore than the interaction of teacher and learner. Since the establishment of the Council for National Academic Awards and new sectors of higher education from the 1960s, and then monitoring procedures covering the whole of higher education in the 1990s, curriculum change has become increasingly enshrined in committee decision, policy document, validation record, module handbook, assessment detail. In spite of overlap between curriculum and teaching and learning, there remains an important boundary.

At institutional levels ÔsystematicÕ innovation encounters the difficulty of involving the teacher, but at the level of the individual innovator there is a different and often more prominent difficulty. To innovate in teaching and to focus on improving student learning is to attach a priority that has seldom attracted recognition and reward in recent higher education circumstances. This has remained largely true through the 1990s despite attempts to redress the balance between research and Ôteaching excellenceÕ as routes to promotion in many institutions, and more widely following the extensive emphasis on learning and teaching in the Dearing report on higher education (Dearing, 1997). Innovation by individuals has generally been low-key, sometimes ghettoised and often without access to adequate resources. It has been a dedicated pursuit of goals sometimes seen as eccentric or threatening to ÔtraditionalÕ teachers, particularly in intensively research-oriented universities. The individual pursuit of innovation has often, however, also meshed with funding support provided by national or other agencies, such as Enterprise in Higher Education or the initiatives of the funding councils. Individual innovators often describe EHE, the national computing and other technology schemes, and other teaching and learning funded initiatives as bringing resources and legitimacy to developments long needed, considered and delayed. At this point individual and systematic (or systemic) pursuits may meet. Although economic discussions of innovation are rarely concerned with the lone innovator (other than the inventor, or the innovator strongly enmeshed in context) they do address a different form of ÔmeshÕ.

Research on the nature of innovation at the national, industry-wide and company level has led to an emphasis not on the role of individual innovators (though often treating the firm as an individual in the market place) but rather on the Ômulti-actor natureÕ of the process (Dodgson and Bessant, 1996, p. 20). The multi-actor profile of innovation within the company is mirrored by the competing pressures in the market place. Past analyses of industrial innovation based on Ôtechnology pushÕ or Ômarket pullÕ have more recently been replaced by a much more interactive version of the process (ibid., pp. 31-2), and a wider understanding of the relationships of inventor, entrepreneur, financier, producer, distributor and user - in the different contexts of large, medium and small enterprises. Any comparison of innovative pursuits and practices in higher education and industry needs to distinguish between policies, processes and intentions, where they diverge and intersect. In particular it has to see innovation in higher education as stemming in a more sustained and interactive way from ideas and the use of materials already introduced into the marketplace.

Identifying the nature and boundaries of innovation in higher education has been made more problematic by the rapid introduction and adoption of new information and communication technologies. These were initially seen as management and organisational tools, but increasingly they were used to replace or supplement face-to-face teaching, and to support student learning. In teaching and learning the introduction of new technology is not in itself an innovation, and may only become so if the context poses a need and if the intended outcome is aimed at changing roles and relationships (amongst tutor, student and material) that affect teaching and learning behaviours. There is a difference between technology that is some kind of equipment (hardware) and technology that involves different ways of using the computer (software). Broadly speaking the former cannot be an innovation, but this is not always clear. A medical innovation of this kind, for instance, might influence the way an operation is performed and in consequence the way in which the teaching of students takes place. This could be a simple enhancement of the procedure or a radical departure in the teaching relationship. Similarly, educationists may work with computer scientists or programmers to produce educational software Ð tools to support teaching and learning, and these may or may not result in significant shifts in student learning opportunities. Such a development may be a response to a policy, a ÔmovementÕ, market forces or perception of a Ômarket nicheÕ. A crucial aspect of both of these kinds of technological development is that it is possible for them simply to support the same ÔkindÕ of learning, the same ÔimageÕ of the learner. Before we pursue further this paradox of novelty reinforcing the established, there are other aspects of technology it is important to underline.

The concern here is not with technological innovation as such, but with the social innovation that includes the absorption of the technology into teaching and learning processes. Technological innovation in industry has been interpreted as the central part of an incremental process that runs from invention or creation through to production or diffusion. Although there have been attacks on the ÔobjectivistÕ view of this form of technology, treating it as Ôan object like seeds or equipmentÕ (Clark and Staunton, 1989, pp. 51-2), discussion of technological innovation in industry has tended to bypass issues of its position in the contextual dimensions of knowledge. It was not unusual, notably following SchumpeterÕs influential work from the 1930s, for innovation to be discussed in the context of economic cycles, taking account of the factors affecting and being affected by disturbances in the pattern of production and consumption Ð including changes in monopoly control and company size. Economists have addressed the position of research and development and the location of innovation, especially dramatically changing technological innovation, in continuing and disrupted processes (Johnson, 1975; Kash, 1989; Stoneman, 1983). One version of the narrative of innovation as the first use or application of technology suggests:

The R&D is necessary to develop the technology so that it can be used. The invention may take place anywhere along the R&D spectrum but prior to the innovation. The innovation generally consists of:

  • generation of an idea;
  • problem solving; and
  • implementation.

The generation of an idea contains elements of market needs and possible technology. The problem solving includes setting specific goals and designing alternative solutions. Implementation consists of the manufacturing engineering, tooling and market start-up (Gerstenfeld, 1979, p. 3).

The important feature of the importation of new technologies into higher education in the late twentieth century is, as we have suggested, the challenges and opportunities it has provided to restructure the teaching-learning relationship, changing the role of the teacher and opening up different learning procedures to the student. The steps in the technological and industrial innovation are to some extent matched in the higher education situation, but the different context of a teaching-learning relationship profoundly alters the purposes and nature of the move towards change. The pattern of response to immediate and wider changes, inhibitions and barriers, competing pressures, and interpretation of the needs of the learner and the complexities of the Ôlearning dialogueÕ (or Ôtri-Õ or Ômulti-dialogueÕ) distance this form of innovation from even the most complex analysis of technological and industrial innovation.

The long history of technical or technological intervention in this higher education relationship has until recently shown little fundamental change in the teaching and learning encounter that has its roots in the ancient Chinese, Arabic and medieval European spread of higher learning. Printing or the early twentieth century educational technologies such as various forms of visual presentation or programmed learning did not supersede the lecture and tutorial relationship. The difference between earlier twentieth-century educational innovations and the present and potential innovative impact of communication and information technologies at the end of the twentieth century lies not just in the nature of the technologies but also in the driving forces of change with major, immediate implications for higher education.