We’ve been having a lot of conversations at Smart Sparrow about the difference between “education innovation” and “learning innovation”. While the two ideas are closely related, understanding the differences ensures institutions are innovating in the right areas, for the right reasons.

What is education innovation?

Education innovation is about improving the way in which universities function, i.e. the operational side of institutions. It’s updating how you manage students enrollments and grades, refurbishing campus facilities, overhauling professional development programs, and more; these are the changes that often happen “behind the scenes” for students and instructors. They can contribute to, but don’t directly impact, student learning.

What is learning innovation?

Learning innovation focuses on enhancing how students learn — how they make connections and retain new knowledge. For example, more instructors are beginning to incorporate collaborative learning solutions, specifically for those students that don’t do well in lecture-based classes. It’s all about improving learning outcomes by innovating the instructor-student relationship and modifying teaching practices.

Linking learning innovation to research

Both types of innovation are necessary in order to provide top-tier education experiences for students. But as a starting point, we argue that you should focus on learning innovation, since it directly impacts the academic and workforce success of students. Moreover, honing in on bettering learning experiences can address problems as old as higher education itself: retention, course completion, student engagement, and general quality of education.

According to current evidence-based learning research, some of the best ways to learn include:

  • studying material in short sessions, over extended periods of time;
  • linking abstract concepts to concrete examples;
  • thinking about questions deeper than the 5 Ws;
  • getting immediate remediation and feedback;
  • engaging in active learning.

So when thinking about ways to improve student learning, we need to think about ways to bring those principles to the forefront of our teaching. How can we use different pedagogical practices to enable better learning outcomes? Converting textbook except to a PDF isn’t changing the way students learn — but turn that content into an interactive story, and now you’re influencing the way the student consumes and processes information.

Examples of innovative learning solutions

Learning innovation is often erroneously called synonymous with “online learning” or “education technology”. Innovating in edtech and/or online learning is certainly worthwhile — this is where Smart Sparrow focuses our energy, after all — but they are not innately innovative efforts, nor the only options.

Learning innovation can happen online and offline. Here are a few examples of what innovative learning solutions can look like:

  1. Mobile learning. You can use devices to allow students to respond to follow-up questions during class, in real time. In one interesting example, a professor asked students to vote to select which real-world example most closely matched the concept discussed during the lecture. It gave the instructor a feel for how well students understood the material, as well as what they were thinking. He then immediately provided feedback, discussing why each response was correct or incorrect.
  2. Pre- and post-class quizzes. Gather data on what students understand before class and after class, feeding their results into an analytics tool. You’ll be able to see the progression of student learning, and adapt your instruction and interventions accordingly. Even better, if your quizzes incorporate adaptive learning technology, you can provide just-in-time feedback and remedial pathways to immediately correct misconceptions.
  3. Bite-size learning. For example, short simulations or modules for students to engage with regularly. Have you ever used the Duolingo mobile app for learning a new language? They follow this model; users access the app regularly, revise previously learned information, and mix in new vocabulary to slowly build their mental dictionary over time.
  4. Active learning.Get students to engage in higher-order thinking by asking them to read, write, discuss, or create. In one cool example, students were part of a team to build prototypes for a student-centered API to improve their institution. Bringing virtual reality is a very current, tech-enabled example of engaging students in active learning.
  5. Design thinking. Activities in this vein can be a collaborative, creative approach to problem solving. Pose ‘How might we…’ problems as they relate to the topic at hand and have students think critically to work through the design thinking process to come up with solutions. The application is broad: students can come up with solutions related to anything from engineering to social justice issues.

There are a multitude of ways to introduce innovative teaching and learning practices. When you do, start by considering how it’s helping you reach students and improve their learning success. Is the change you’re making or technology you’re adopting supported by evidenced-based teaching practices?

We’ll be exploring these ideas further at the Learning Innovation Summit 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. If you’re interested in discussing and trying innovative learning practices, join us in July.