This summer’s Learning Innovation Summit asked a big question: how can we leverage effective learning innovations to improve student outcomes in the sciences? The day offered insight into pedagogical techniques and approaches, but the afternoon experts’ panel focused in on the driving forces behind the wheel in their session titled “Driving Innovation Without Accidents: What Works & What Doesn’t When Trying to Improve Student Success.”

Moderated by Tony Wan, the managing editor at EdSurge, panelists represented leaders in the spheres of higher ed, K-12 education, educational foundations, and edtech.

While audiences of course wanted to hear stories of success, Tony also acknowledged the deep-seated human fascination with mishaps, and encouraged panelists to open up about mistakes they’d made and witnessed. “You can’t really have innovation without accidents,” offered Dr. Philip Rous, Provost & Senior VP for Academic Affairs at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “but that doesn’t mean you’re not being cautious… you’re dealing with students’ lives.”

“You can’t really have innovation without accidents, but that doesn’t mean you’re not being cautious… you’re dealing with students’ lives.”

With this in mind, here are some rules of the road, as it were, from our panel on how to spark and sustain learning innovation.

What doesn’t work?

1. Silver Bullets  

Gates Foundation Senior Program Officer Rahim Rajan noted a common disconnect between the aspirations of edtech providers and the situation ‘on the ground’ in schools and for learners. Many innovators underestimate “the hard work it really takes to affect change over multiple iterative cycles [necessary to affect change],” Rahim shared. “There aren’t a lot of silver bullets that we can just drop in on a campus and shift outcomes.”

According to Rahim, building effective education tools involves gathering and analyzing feedback, which has to be systemic. For example, when grantees of the Gates Foundation perform surveys or focus groups, those that are effective gather data “not just once, but multiple times, over a period of time, on the same campus, to really gather that feedback and understand the perspectives [of students and instructors].”

2. Chasing the Next Milestone

Especially in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest. Jenny Raymond, Vice President of Account Relationships & Student Success at Smart Sparrow, pointed out that a common pitfall in the use of edtech is not looking back enough. Digital learning tools with analytics give instructors and designers the opportunity to engage with a whole new level of student data in order to continually improve the courses they provide. Not making use of this is not only a disservice to learners, but a surefire way to derail innovative initiatives.

Senior Learning Architect for ASU Prep Digital, Dr. Wendy Oliver, offered the old adage that you have to ‘eat your own dog food.’ This consistent attention to student and instructor feedback goes hand-in-hand with an iterative product development model, which Wendy expressed is “particularly important” to managing stakeholder expectations and ensuring a positive impact on student success.

3. Underestimating the Inertia of Higher Education

Throughout the panel discussion, Philip shared stories from the entirety of his academic journey, from dashing to class as an undergraduate, to lecturing as a professor, to supporting faculty as a dean, to his current role in fostering innovation as provost at UMBC. From all of this experience, he warned innovators in higher ed of the embedded mindsets they are likely to run up against when attempting to employ new learning tools and solutions.

Philip told the audience of science classrooms which his university physically remodeled in an attempt to enable more active learning and less one-way lecturing. Despite of the lack of podium, projector, and even rows of chairs, he soon found some faculty couldn’t break the habit. “We had the facility, we had the innovation, we had everything there, but we had not changed the culture of the institution.”


What does work?

1. Alignment of Goals

According to Jenny, when an institution is embarking upon an innovative initiative, “Transparency among the different parties involved is key.” Open communication helps maintain alignment across the various stakeholders’ goals.

This doesn’t mean these goals have to be the same, Jenny went on to explain, instead it ensures there’s an ongoing understanding of the project, the purpose, and how it fits into everyone’s landscape.

2. Centering Your Work on Students

“Successful courses are built based on engagement and motivation,” explained Jenny. She shared that, starting from the development phase, “student perspective is key” to creating content and experiences that will effectively support learners. Whether it be through in-person interviews, digital surveys, or beta-testing, student input and feedback should be a central concern of instructors and learning designers.

Starting from the development phase, student perspective is key to creating content and experiences that will effectively support learners.

Wendy agreed. She shared that, over her years in education, she has come to the realization that “it doesn’t matter what I think [about a learning experience] because I’m not the student demographic.” Instead, the most important evaluation of course elements “has to come from the learners.”

3. Creating an Environment for Innovation

Rahim and Philip both spoke about the necessary space and culture for innovation.

What does this look like? According to Rahim, “[It’s] an environment where taking risks is safe, where people are rewarded for trying to do things differently,” both of which he deemed fundamental to innovation.

Through his experience as a Provost at UMBC, Philip has found that innovation is best implemented when driven by faculty. In order to encourage and cultivate this, he says that institutions need to reduce the risk to instructors of innovating.

Philip says he empowers new faculty to take worthy risks. “Suppose [they] come to my office, knock on my door, say ‘Mr. Provost, I’ve got this great idea for a new innovation I’d like to drive in my course, but I need some help. $15,000 of help.’ If whatever they tried doesn’t work out exactly as they told me that it might, they need to know that Mr. Provost is not going to come knocking at their door and say ‘Why did you waste my $15,000?’”

Naturally, a key component to supporting this work from the institutional level is to fund it, but it is equally vital, according to Dr. Rous, that the faculty member knows leading the way in innovative initiatives won’t put their job in danger.

“The ability to learn lessons through not failing but piloting is absolutely critical.”

Finding Your Innovation Partner

If you’re interested in affecting change on your campus, start a conversation with our Learning Design Studio or create a free Smart Sparrow account to start learning how to craft innovative learning experiences. Our technology is helping educators improve student outcomes through the use of adaptive lessons that can meet the needs of every learner in the class.