Academic Innovation Lacks Student Voice. And That Has to Change.

Opinion | Digital Learning

Academic Innovation Lacks Student Voice. And That Has to Change.

By Annie Sadler     Apr 5, 2018

Academic Innovation Lacks Student Voice. And That Has to Change.

At the recent HAIL storm gathering held at California State University Channel Islands, I had the opportunity to present a challenge and receive advice from 35 leaders working in higher-ed innovation. As a recent graduate who is new to the field of academic innovation I asked, “How can students engage meaningfully with institutional change?”

My question was followed by a 40-minute session with a group of the college and university officials, who offered solutions and insights on the relationship between students and innovation. And then the subject was closed. The remaining 36 hours of the event were spent discussing innovation where the institution was the end user, not students.

At HAIL, there was a powerful sense of urgency around the need to make higher education more accessible and responsive to learners. The consensus? Innovation is the solution. And the motivation for institutional change is student needs. So when we talk about innovation, why are students missing as active participants in the conversation?

If we want to change higher ed, as we claim we want to, we need to put students at the center of innovation design. Students are essential for effective institutional change. Engaging students creates innovations with more potential, thought diversity, and campus support. We need to have a transparent and accessible pathway to these conversations that move beyond the token student at the table. After all, what’s so innovative about a process that leaves out the ideas of the most important stakeholder?

The 5-Year Plan vs. the 16-Week Semester

In practice, engaging students begins with the innovation timeline. These timelines vary from students to faculty to staff. For instance, the five-year strategic plan timeframe is outside the 16-week semester view that most students have. Meanwhile, the institutional innovation timeline can extend to be 5 or 10 years. So when we put students at the center of user-centric design around innovation, our timelines must also shift.

We must also create ways for the larger community of students and alumni to be involved beyond their time at the institutions. And conversely, we need to find innovations that students can experience and benefit from before they graduate.

Scale of Innovations

Part of adjusting the time frame is inviting students to think of innovation at an institutional scale. We need to understand the difference in scale hidden in the word ‘innovation’ amongst different populations. For administrators, innovation can be how might we reimagine the tenure track process. For students, innovation can mean online ordering at the school cafe. We need to engage students to think about innovation on the same institutional scale that administrators do, so that when we invite students to participate we are speaking with the same understandings

Visibility and Relevance

Students aren’t motivated to participate. There is no incentive or scaffolding for students to believe it will be worth their time and efforts to engage with this issue. This isn't the case, however, for some other important issues colleges face. For example, while student government has historically had a chance to weigh-in on campus decisions around items such as fees and services, innovation initiatives rarely make the agenda.

Institutional innovation must become visible and relevant to the daily lives of students. We must make space for students to take a leading role so that the motivation stems from the opportunity to learn and gain experience that can help them with their post-college career. The opportunity for course credit or leadership roles ties institutional change to the motivations and life of students in tangible ways.

Still, solutions like course credit or leadership opportunities will not work for every student nor every type of higher education institution. Leaders in academic innovation need to be asking how might we make space to include students from a diverse range of schools to engage with institutional change?

Students are largely absent in conversations about institutional innovation and therefore don’t know what the innovation work is even though it is ultimately for them. If we try to change higher ed and the institutions within them without placing students central, are we setting ourselves up for failure?

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