Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Innovation Is Not An Empty Term

And it's essay week! Writing one essay critiquing the dissenting research on video games in formal education (arguing that the majority of arguments are actually critiques of the education system rather than of video games) and the other on a historical comparison of research on informal learning pre- and post-Internet (amazing how much the conversation hasn't changed).

Which means dissertation analysis is in the back seat, so to speak. Yet, I thought I'd share particular point I've been contemplating lately from the research.

Lately I've been examining what's not in responses as to how to conceptualize innovation. And one thing almost all answers are not missing is confidence that innovation is something in particular.

Of all of the scoping respondents - some of the most prominant thinkers and practitioners in U.K. Educational Technology - only one person wholeheartedly answered that he was not sure what innovation is.

“I've been asked lots of times what innovation is and I'm not sure that I know. Not for certain. I'm sure that it means new things, useful things, exciting things? But what is the purpose of innovation? Is it simply to exhibit new, useful and shiny things or is it to see these through to mainstream acceptance and understanding? I suspect that the latter is right but that innovators get bored once mainstream gets ahold and they move on. In that case I'm not really an innovator. I see the point and given the opportunity will try to mainstream that point.”

Every other respondent listed with some level of confidence some conception of what characteristics of innovation are and what are seen as innovative projects.

Worth thinking about. There is a conception out there among individuals of what innovation means when applied to technology programs, what it entails.  It is not an empty term; it has weight in our minds.  However, as results will show, this conception is not universally shared nor definitively defined in the collective mindset (see previous posts).  What does it mean? How is this conception formed if not collectively?

I have a preliminary theory on this last question, but not for today. Just a grain of food for thought.

IF YOU ARE OR YOUR KNOW AN innovative teacher in educational technology, I'd love to hear from you! The more analysis I do, the more crucial I think the teacher's perspectives are.  Fill out the survey at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dENtTTJvN243NHo0enZKU0JsMGlhU0E6MQ#gid=0

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Black Hole of Innovation

So, what do we have? We have disparate views on what programs or approaches are innovative, and disparate views on what characteristics are innovative. Yet the data tells us more than merely this; how can we (using the royal we, I mean I) make sense of all of these insights into how we conceptualize innovation?  My developing thoughts on this will be the subject of the next couple of blog posts.

The programs or approaches named tend to be able to be grouped in some major categories.  I've made this preliminary image of the various facets of formal education that are challenged by "innovative" programs:
Almost all of the programs/approaches named can be grouped into one or more of these categories; but some categories are more heavy-hit than others.

For instance, educational content seems to be so far the black hole of "innovative" programs in educational technology. Several approaches at altering curricula were named, but most of these made sure to explicitly maintain that they were still teaching the national curriculum; these were more geared at altering how we teach it than the content of what we actually teach.  Others have named the knowledge-sharing websites that link individuals up with anything they want to learn; but I view this as not an attack on formal education  content, persay, but rather as an addendum to it (no one is telling anyone on these sites to not practice their math tables).

There may be a couple of programs that fit into the category of content-altering; I'm still investigating the different facets of some programs.

But is content the one area that policy makers retain a monopoly on in educational innovation? In essence, I can make sense of this black hole of innovation in my head.  No matter what innovative methods or approaches a school does...

  • the school still has to abide by the national standards of assessment (GSCEs, etc) and therefore teach the content that is being assessed. It is the measure of success for a school; and probably particularly important for innovative programs that are trying to 'prove' their methods. 
  • the content purported by the national curricula is still valued by all in education, including by students. I think I would be hard-pressed to find an innovator advocating that students don't need to learn basic math skills, or literacy, etc. 

Yet this black hole casts some interesting reflections on the constraints of innovation.  Is it that content shouldn't be touched in educational innovation, or that most programs would not dare to touch content given how well it is entrenched in the minds of policy makers and (essentially) the funders of formal education?

Can you think of any programs that explicitly and successfully challenge content? If not, why?  I'm contemplating the UnSchooling movement in the U.S...
Am I missing a facet of formal education that can be challenged in my graph? If so, what? 

Monday, April 30, 2012

The 70 Characteristics of Innovation?

Along with the findings I described in my previous post, findings from the first question, which asked individuals to describe characteristics of truly innovative programs, also illustrated the extreme variation of conceptions of innovation in the educational technology field.

Over 70 distinctly different characteristics of innovative programs in educational technology have been named thus far. 70! Again, this is striking to me given that I am using a snowballing technique to generate participants; frequently respondents are working or have worked together professionally; and yet, answers continue to vary substantially.

I've been grouping answers about what are characteristics of innovation into major categories:

  • relation to student, 
  • relation to teacher, 
  • operational characteristics of innovation (i.e. scalability, sustainability), 
  • goal or purpose of innovation,  
  • 'other' characteristics, (still working on these)
  • and a group that I currently call "the negatives" - you'd be surprised the answers (by whom and about what!) that fall in this category!

There are repeated threads in the answers. I will shy away from describing any of the subsequent findings I talk about as "themes," as none of these were discussed by anywhere near a majority of respondents; it may be better to call them "key dialogues" as frequently both the topic and the converse of that topic were found among the answers (even sometimes among the answers of a specific respondent).

That's another main finding; the direct contradictions that arise within what we see as characteristics of innovation. I think these results will point to the main dialogues going on currently in educational technology; possibly the issues the field has yet to resolve.

Stay tuned tomorrow where I'll discuss findings around one of the main "key dialogues" in the answers. Hint: It's an old conversation, but with lots of strange(?) angles found in questionnaire answers. Second Hint: We as a field don't agree! Surprise.

Fill out the questionnaire here!   Pass it on to individuals you know!!! Please!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Isn't Innovation?

The most obvious and most striking finding from the 30+ questionnaires I've received, from professors, practitioners, consultants, educationalists, etc. has to do with what programs are designated as truly innovative.

Question 2 was set up to get at what respondents thought were programs that challenge educational norms in the U.K.; truly "rebellious" approaches.  I had originally thought that surveying those within the Learning and Technology sector would be the best way to elucidate a handful of programs that most agreed were definitely thinking "outside the box."

I'm still working on analyzing the most recent data coming in, but as of Tuesday, of the 25 responses I've analyzed, 61 different programs/schools/innovators were named.  Even more striking, not one of these programs/schools/innovators received more than three votes.

This result is particularly thought-provoking because of the snowballing sampling strategy I've been using to generate participants. I ask questionnaire respondents to name other people to include in the scoping process, meaning that many participants are fairly connected professionally.  And yet there seems to be very little agreement even between those who work together and know each other as to what are innovative, structure-challenging approaches to Educational Technology.

I am working on closer analysis of themes from the answers; the values and characteristics ascribed to why these innovations were mentioned, etc...I'll share at a later point in time.

Yet the basic question that keeps floating back into my mind is: what isn't innovation in Learning and Technology?  Given the spread of programs/schools/innovators of all 'shapes and sizes' named, it seems that everything is innovative to someone in Educational Technology, based on their experiences and their position in the field. Yet, it is clear that by designating something "innovative" (particularly in this questionnaire based on how the question is framed), we are ascribing some sort of valuation to these programs mentioned; a positive value judgment that distinguishes these programs from other approaches.  But what are the values we are ascribing when we call something innovative?

What isn't an innovative approach in a field that is essentially evolving and changing all the time, with new technologies and new approaches?

Does the disagreement on what is innovative diminish the value of the word itself?  Or do we not need to decide on a shared conception of innovation?

SHAMELESS PLUG: Fill out the questionnaire here! I want to hear from you!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Welcome to my blog about my Master's Dissertation at the University of Oxford Learning and Technology programme!  A bit about the research, and a bit about why I've started this blog.

The Research: Originally, my research was to focus on the educational trends such as international movements for standardization, assessment, and accountability, that constrain the possibilities of innovation in the educational technology field.  I then was originally going to look at how exactly programs that defied these trends came about. 

However, while conducting a scoping questionnaire (Which you can fill out here!) to get a better grasp of what are considered "innovative" programs within the U.K., it became clear that there was a much more imperative story to tell.  No one agreed on what is innovation, or what are examples of innovation. I began pondering, what does innovation look like for those within the Educational Technology field? Is everything innovative? Is nothing? Are some things "more" innovative than others? In a field full of constantly new and emerging ideas, how do we decide what practices we see as true innovations in education? What values do we ascribe when we call something "innovative"?

And therefore, my dissertation research aims to track various themes in how we define "innovation" within the educational technology field. I do believe that a Master's Dissertation may be well-designed to conduct this research, as it involves a shorter time-frame (the full results will be in by August! No matter what) and I'm not accountable to any funders and can therefore conduct my research as I choose.

Why It's Important: The field of educational technology is constantly associated with innovation; by the media, by policy makers, by business, by nonprofits, by educationalists, and by practitioners. What does it mean if we as a field cannot focus what innovation means, or what direction we want to go? Still pondering the implications....

I have no idea if anyone will read this, but it's good for my thought process either way. Hoping to ask some questions and get feedback to the hard questions I'm examining for the field. Subsequent posts will look at preliminary survey results; hoping to post daily. Stay tuned!  

Lisa Phillips