My learnings for innovative education

Posted on May 4, 2009


BIT students and their virtual ant farm for the museum Last week I spoke at the Tertiary Education Summit.   I was on a panel to discuss “Developing world leading research and innovation activities”.   The panel was asked to explore what are characteristics of successful institutions?  

I’ve been on panels like this before and listened to lots more.  The outcome is always the same:   “give universities more money to spend on science and take commercialisation seriously”.    I’m afraid that despite my best efforts, the same could be said to summarise this one. 

Neil Haugh (AUT) talked about the aim of learning being intellectual independence.  He says we should aim to help students achieve clarity and precision, and know themselves as intellectual beings.  This, his says, “culminates in their capability as a researcher”.   Parallel to this independence, he says, students should also develop “intellectual interpendence” – be able to function in collaborative relationships and so on.

Shaun Coffey (Industrial Research) talked about the impact of the quality industry.  He says we need to change the community perception of investment in science.    Derek Fairweather (Innovation Waikato) says we need to come clean and admit that we are failing.  He cites the University of Wisconsin development of Warfarin as a success we should attempt to emulate.  He talked about Denmark – following a strategy of focussing on downstream and upstream of the primary sector.  Chile, he says, doesn’t do “research” – instead they do “development and technology transfer”.   He says we need to focus on our global point of difference (turning pasture into food) and add value to that – the focus of everything we do must be to generate wealth.    The dairy industry needs to be positioned as leading edge technology and operation and able to provide a path and openings all the way from “cups on to PhD”.   He is critical of PBRF for hindering collaboration and of institutional commercialisation offices.   

So far, entirely to form.  We have a panel saying  give more money to research (especially science in universities) and get smarter about commercialisation.    

I tried something different.   I argued, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the other panelists had misinterpreted the question.  The focus should be on the innovation.  This I based on three understandings:

1:  I gave McKeon’s definition of invention being an idea made manifest and innovation being an idea applied successfully.  

2:  Then I talked about von Hippel’s democratising innovation.   Rather than looking to the elite for sources of innovation,  the ideas and transformation come from end users – from all of us, not just the heroes.

3:  I used a much wider definition of wealth than the previous speakers.  My wealth is one of strong sustainability.  

These three  success implies a transformation in the application.  So, the question is what are the characteristics of successful transformations in the tertiary sector.  

So as not to appear entirely unqualified to talk on the panel I covered the bases of what I wasn’t talking about.  Yes I have experience in product development and commercialisation (thank you large american broadcaster).    Instead I talked about our experiences at Otago Polytechnic where we are committed to inspiring capability and try to avoid strong distinctions between teaching, research and operations.  The mix of all these three is where we see successful transformation:

Midwifery:  supporting rural communities through new models of education

Simpa:   user centred partnerships, and open agenda,  mixing technologies and approaches

Open Education Resources:  valuing what we do by making it freely available in ways that are free, open, reusable, sustainable (video)

Shac:  OP is providing the inspiration and framework for the national Sustainable Habitat Challenge.  

Otago Institute of Design

Computer Science Education (Agile, Evidence-based-teaching-practice, and capstone projects – students working with industry and demonstrating competence, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship).   Students work in groups to solve real problems for real clients – demonstrating competence, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.  Using a hybrid of structured  and agile methods they work closely with all stakeholders to understand needs before developing and deploying systems or software to industry standard.

And, of course, our commitmentt to Sustainable Practitioner.


I concluded with learnings, the emergent characteristics of these innovations:

1. Innovation is a system where teaching, research and operations are intimately woven

2.  Acting as a learning organisation (Senge) means, among other things, that everything we do is a learning opportunity.  And a research opportunity,  and an opportunity to improve practice. 

3.  Empowerment.   Listen to ideas, support the ones that align with strategy (a flexible strategy) and get out of the way by

– supporting ownership 

– valuing ourselves – we need to back ourselves (staff/students/community partnerships) to achieve positive transformation. 

– facilitating structures

– encouraging behaviour change  (for the changed state to become embedded, it needs to be the automatic response). 

– celebrating success

4:  Participation

– collaboration

– radical transparency

– openness

– trust

– margins

5. Integrate creativity and rigour  (note, not a balance as that suggests opposing)

 think creatively, reason systematically

6. Vision.  Articulate an inclusive vision that we can all own.   And of course, have an inspirational leader to do that. 

7.  Recognise that any innovation is a journey not a destination.  These systems are evolving and we need to support experimentation.