What is an educational innovation?


True educational innovations are those products, processes, strategies and approaches that improve significantly upon the status quo and reach scale.

Examples of Innovation in Education

Here’s some new thinking, examples of innovation at the university level. If this list seems underwhelming, that’s in part due to the underwhelming nature of the innovations. The point isn’t to showcase how innovative higher education is but rather to point out innovations that are out there while hopefully helping pollinate the possibility of innovation. With that in mind, here’s the more common, perhaps less, exciting examples.

1. Competency-Based Learning

Competency-Based Education isn’t necessarily an example of innovation in higher education, but a move to Competency-Based Education can lead to other innovations–using technology to personalize a student’s navigation of to-be-mastered content, for example. The definition of asynchronous learning (Simply put, when students learn the same thing at different times and from different places) helps us understand the need for asynchronous access to this content, especially when this access is not through a dated university learning management system, but something more authentic to the student, maybe even accessed on their own mobile devices. Competency-Based Education, at least in terms of the learning process (as opposed to content), should be student-centred and efficient.

2. Video Streaming/Flipped Classroom/eLearning Trends

From Zoom to Skype to Webinars and even live streaming on social media itself, video is perhaps the most visible and common form of technological innovation in K-12 and higher ed. Video, of course, enables other innovations. An example? The flipped classroom movement (a flipped classroom is a type of blended learning where students are introduced to content at home and practice working through it at school- the reverse of the more common practice of introducing new content at school, then assigning homework and projects to completed by the students independently at home) seems to, in pockets, be threatening the college lecture. As does–or should–YouTube. There is so much great content already published and accessible, that curation matters as much as creation

3. Open Curriculum

Open curriculum has been out for years but hasn’t disrupted much. They are great ideas, but assessment and feedback loops and certification are among the many issues holding them back. eLearning will eventually be at the core of the university experience rather than the fringe, but eLearning how? What content? What kind of delivery models? There’s a lot to consider. Still, this is definitely an example of innovation in education

4. Changing nature of faculty

Whether this is ‘innovation’ that results in a ‘leaner’ business model that offers an improved ability to pivot or simply an unfortunate effect of a lack of funding is up to you. However, there is a clear trend towards adjunct faculty and a mobile, ‘global’ faculty with new contractual relationships with higher education institutes.

Today, digital networks of information make access to data and areas of speciality ubiquitous, particularly in the scientific fields. Therefore, researchers no longer need to be in the same physical location to collaborate. This change will reduce the attractiveness of many universities for expert faculty. For example, a faculty member may choose to teach at a small institution in a rural setting, yet collaborate on research with faculty in a large urban environment.

5. Changing revenue sources for institution funding

With the Coronavirus already having a massive impact on the global economy, existing attempts at funding higher education institutions through government funding, subsidies, and other methods are going to have to be scaled up fast–along with significant cost-cutting. This makes ‘finding new business models for college’ among the most important innovations in decades. And as far as examples of innovation in higher education, eLearning absolutely must be a part of that.

6. Digital textbooks

This is a relatively minor innovation but an innovation nonetheless: free, open-source textbooks, digital textbook rental, etc. If nothing else, this makes textbooks more accessible than ever before.

Other Examples of Innovation in Higher Education

The following are examples of innovation that aren’t entirely ‘realized’, are early in their infancy, or not widely-adopted, etc.

7. 3D Printing

3D printing has more potential in higher ed than K-12. Or seems to, anyway. That’s fairly insignificant in and of itself as an innovation, but as with Competency-Based Education, 3Dprinting could lead to other more disruptive innovation if it’s nurtured right in a university context.

8. Use of data analytics

This is an opportunity to innovate at all levels of education but higher ed might be less ready for this than K-12 due to non-standard curriculum and assessment practices. Regardless, data analytics are among the most potent examples of innovation in education.

9. Free Tuition

This is likely not sustainable on a large scale but an important development for socio-inequalities. For example, Stanford University’s 2015 announcement that its tuition would be free to any student from a family that earns less than $125,000 a year.

10. Virtual and Augmented Reality

Likely a huge factor in the future of all education in some form, but nowhere close to ready for mass adoption.

11. Smarter Learning Management Systems

The need and the technology are available, but at the moment these are embarrassingly bad in far too many cases.

12. Artificial Intelligence

Much like virtual reality, AI is part of the future but not quite there yet. It is fast becoming a topic of study at universities across the world.

13. New kinds of certifications and degrees

New certifications and university degrees could include those mashing STEM fields with the humanities, as well as ‘nano-degrees’ and the ability to ‘update’ your certification and degree over time.

14. New pedagogies

Again, this innovation is absurdly low compared to the opportunity and need but many universities are experimenting with alternatives to lecture, including project-based learning at the college level, inquiry-based learning, the aforementioned competency-based learning,scenario-based learning, and more.


About The Author

Terry Heick was a classroom teacher before founding TeachThought in 2010, an organization dedicated to humanizing education through a combination of creative innovation, and sustainable, research-based practice.

“When a society changes, so then must its tools. Definitions of purpose and quality must also be revised continuously. What should a school ‘do’? Why can’t education, as a system, refashion itself as aggressively as the digital technology that is causing it so much angst? The fluidity of a given curriculum should at least match the fluidity of relevant modern knowledge demands. ” -Terry Heick

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