The nature of innovation in education

Ian Lynch

Ian Lynch is currently CEO of TLM, an Ofqual Accredited Awarding Organisation set up to enable innovation in the STEM curriculum space. He was a member of the SLT that set up the first CTC, the team that devised the specialist schools programme. His startup IRL Computer Systems Ltd won the Midlands Small Business of the Year Award 2000, DTi Smart Award 2002 and more recently, TLM, three EU funded transfer of Innovation projects.

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Different teachers have different ideas when it comes to innovation in education. Here, The Learning Machine’s Ian Lynch explains why he feels schools need to be careful not to get carried away with technology.

We can find hundreds of quotes on innovation...

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” - William Pollard

“Innovation comes from the producer - not from the customer.” - W. Edwards Deming

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you ‘get it’.” Steve Jobs

“Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no one else has thought.” Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt

...and the one striking thing about them all is that virtually none mention gadgets, even those from computer entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs.

Gadgets are potential tools in innovation, they don’t innovate in themselves. Pollard emphasises the strong link between innovation and learning. Knowledge that is new to the learner is innovating what they know, but to the teacher it is not innovative because it is what they know already. The teacher innovates with better methods of providing that knowledge to the learner either in terms of efficiency or effectiveness or both.

This is why Edwards Deming identifies the producer as the innovator. In the educator-learner model, the teacher is the producer of learning support so the teacher is the potential innovator in that relationship. Educational resources are consumed by the teacher so the innovation in them comes from the provider of them.

The supply chain for innovation is not so simple. Steve Jobs emphasises that it is not to do with resources but people and their attitudes. There is blurring of some of these ideas by contemporary technologies. Edwards Deming was of a time before the information revolution, and it is arguable that Web 2.0 brought a significant change in that consumers can become contributors to innovation traditionally associated with producers in the field of information. By the same token in constructivist models of education, learners can contribute to the innovation in their learning.

One thing about innovation is that it is difficult and it requires a lot of failures.

“Failure is a necessary part of the innovation process because from failure comes learning, iteration, adaptation, and the building of new conceptual and physical models through an iterative learning process. Almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures.” - Hess, 2012.

This presents a clear problem for true innovation in education. Political pressure means failure is not an option, yet innovation is a sexy word for politicians. This results in political symbolism and rhetoric using technological gadgets as proxies for educational innovation. Often the truth is that, at best, it is a fashion statement; at worst reinforces traditional pedagogical approaches while giving the impression that there is innovation. A good example is the interactive whiteboard (IWB).

The first thing about IWBs is that they are spectacular (or at least were when they were novel): Big, visual and very easy to quickly grasp a photo opportunity. This is manna from heaven to politicians and senior leaders wanting to project innovation without having to do too much work. If we were focused on innovation in the educational sense, we would be labelling it interactive whole class teaching or enhanced learner participation.

So what was innovative about the IWB? Firstly, it enabled a whole class to see a computer screen at the same time. Secondly, it enabled the computer mouse to be replaced by a touch screen. Neither of these were particularly dependent on the whiteboard itself. I lugged a data projector to a venue to do the same thing in 1988; it just wasn’t easily portable and was very expensive. Touch screens had been around for graphic designers; but again, expensive. Some teachers had already moved from blackboard to whiteboard to overhead projector (OHP).

Certainly the use of IWBs to encourage whole class voting and to get the power of the internet into the room should not be simply dismissed, but really none of those facilities are dependent on the board itself. The projector, computer and any old screen could get the internet in there and support a voting system. It’s arguable that the IWB could be viewed as a barrier to innovation if it it’s distracting from other, more significant, factors.

More recently the iPad has been the focus of attention. There is no doubt that every student having their own computing device to access, process and present information is inevitable, and a lot of getting there is down to cost. So why are we focused on the most expensive device that enjoys the widest profit margins, when all history tells us is that widespread routine use is only likely when the device is commoditised and multi-vendor? Monopolies are great for the seller, bad for the consumer. What precisely is educationally innovative about the iPad that has not been done before, eg. with a laptop? Psion netbooks were around 15 years ago providing portable internet access with a longish battery life, instant on and off; just expensive and limited by an immature web.

The media love simple, superficial images because they are easy to sell to the masses. This is the same with politicians, and it is the opposite of true innovation. It is sheep following a fashion so that they can appear innovative. The truly innovative thing would be a sustainable situation where all pupils routinely supported all their work on electronic devices, not just a few for parts of the curriculum time.

A minority using laptops for everything has been around for decades. The reason why that innovation has not been replicated everywhere is complex. The cost and power management are two key factors, but the really expensive one to change is adult culture. Power management is largely solved in modern devices, whether it be netbooks, chromebooks or laptops. They are all computers, just in different packages, and none of those packages is optimal for all education purposes. Cost continues to fall with incremental evolution of the technology, economies of scale and competition. Increasing access to open education resources is very significant yet it is the device that gets the attention. Going for the most expensive monopoly provider seems to make no sense at all in education, where it’s all about mass commodities on low margins; in terms of innovation, for me, the iPad seems a blind alley.

Now, it is fair to say that perhaps we need a limited amount of this expensive stuff to show what can be done to fuel the revolution as prices fall. However, if that is the case, the really innovative thing (based on Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt) would be to measure the education benefit and determine the training programme for teachers, before committing to a large cost.

If we know innovation comes with risk, it is sensible to mitigate the risk. There is plenty of time, it takes several years for prices to fall to a point where we can really sustain this and change the way we teach. If everyone and his dog is suddenly throwing money at the latest fashion accessory without any real evidence of why it provides good value, that is not innovation, it’s sheep following a fashion.

Education innovation needs to be focused on learning gains, scope for inclusion and reducing costs. If technology helps then it will be obvious. Technology companies have big enough marketing budgets without schools spending what they claim to be meagre resources boosting brand names and fashion, as a substitute for real professional understanding.

Do Ian’s thoughts on innovation match your own? Let us know in the comments.

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