What Does Innovation Mean in Higher Education?

What Does Innovation Mean in Higher Education?


You can’t walk around any college campus, school district or company without hearing the word “innovation.” Organizations of all sorts display front and center the innovative ideas and innovative ways they build and sell products to change teaching and learning, from Netflix-like adaptive algorithms to augmented reality experiences.

Is there a limit or consensus to what innovation actually means? Does one have to be among the first in a field or community to push the idea or product, or does reinventing (and improving) the wheel count too?

These questions grounded discussions at last weekend’s annual Education Writers Association higher education seminar. The event for colleges and newsrooms covering education focused on innovation and was aptly held at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, an institution transforming itself into a “New American University” — a redesigned modern university envisioned by ASU President Michael Crow and researcher William Dabars.

In the case of ASU

While many panels and organizations made their cases on EWA’s stage, two schools showcased radically different approaches to higher education innovation.

For 2016, U.S. News and World Report ranked ASU as the number one university for innovation, surpassing flagships Stanford and MIT. The story ASU officials tell about how it got there involves growing its online degree programs, producing more research, building a downtown campus and reducing the cost of getting a degree.

In the time Crow put his New American University plans into motion, the president said ASU went from serving 47,000 students to 300,000 learners and now offers 140 online degree programs.

About 37 percent of students received Pell grants in 2015, and Crow said that has so far increased — as have completion rates and the number of black and Hispanic students, according to The Hechinger Report. The university would focus on who it includes rather than excludes, he said.

ASU President Michael Crow keynotes a dinner reception at EWA's higher education seminar hosted in Tempe, Ariz. (Antoinette Siu)

According to Wellington Reither, senior advisor to Crow, planning for ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus began around 2004. The campus includes a fitness center in partnership with YMCA, journalism school, center for law and society, nursing school and college of public service along with a light rail. Since the bond election passed in 2006 for $224 million, enrollment in fall 2015 for the downtown campus reached 10,952.

Another byproduct of ASU’s redesign is its online education, now branded EdPlus. ASU claims it grew from 400 online students to some 20,000 in the last six years. It has partnered with King’s College in London and University of South Wales in Australia and launched the Global Freshmen Academy, a partnership with edX to offer online courses to first-year students.

Home of EdPlus, ASU's online program offering about 140 different degrees, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Antoinette Siu)

ASU’s evolution has been met with criticism and praise from higher education observers and practitioners. Some have lauded Crow’s inventive ways and how it has led to more research dollars. Nature reported that from 2003 to 2012, ASU’s federally funded research portfolio increased by 162 percent, surpassing the growth at other research institutions.

It would seem then that grants favored the interdisciplinary approach, but other critics say the university actually sees little success in terms of getting papers into top scientific journals.

Then there’s Deep Springs College

Contrast ASU’s scale — both in terms of physical campus expansion and online presence — with a much smaller two-year college in California next to the Nevada border, which only admits 12 to 15 students a year. The closest airport to Deep Springs College is about four hours away in Las Vegas, and there is no cellphone reception.

Students attend Deep Springs College for free, and the school does not have majors, concentrations or departments. They can finish with an associate of arts degree or transfer credits to another college for their bachelor’s.

Each person contributes at least 20 hours of labor a week. That ranges from tending the cattle ranch, running everything like marketing and producing beef for the campus, to cooking and cleaning and evaluating incoming students.

According to Deep Springs, its class consists of 30 percent people of color, more than 11 percent identify as LGBT and 20 percent are international students.

Businessman L.L. Nunn founded Deep Springs College in 1917 after he was finished building power plants. President David Neidorf says his college teaches “intellectual honesty” and humanities at its best, in the spirit of opposing the dominant colleges and thinking rooted in its establishment.

Neidorf says employers he hears from find college graduates lacking in the soft skills: working with people, solving problems or communicating. Education is not just focused on acquiring abilities, but students form their souls into a newer state, he says.

Classes never exceed 30 at Deep Springs. The advantage of staying small to Neidorf is they can multiply rather than scale up and risk losing its humanistic side. He worries about whether innovations like online education or scaled technology strategies can help grow mature, responsible citizens.

Seeing the good ideas

Deep Springs College and ASU define innovation in their own way, as do many other colleges and districts everywhere. Yet innovation is not always an idea problem, writes David Burkus, author of “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies Generate Great Ideas.”

Burkus, who also contributes to Harvard Business Review, defends that innovation isn’t about finding more ideas, but rather recognizing the good ideas that already exist.

Companies like Apple and Google consistently lead as the most innovative companies in the world. By one Booz & Company (now Strategy&) ranking, the 10 most innovative companies worldwide separate themselves from the pack by knowing their capability. In other words, they know what they are good at.

Apple recognizes what it is good at, whether it’s the user experience or its iconic brand, and focuses on making products that provide value there.

“Successful innovators focus on what matters most rather than spreading their effort and resources on capabilities that are less critical,” Barry Jaruzelski and Cesare R. Mainardi said of their analysis in Forbes.

While teaching students differs from making iPhones, an organization’s thinking should support how it can provide value for its students, by doing what it does best — educating.

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