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Education Incubator: Why Innovate in Higher Education?

Why Innovate in Higher Education?

Innovation is a word commonly associated with product development and the world of business – creating value from ideas, yet the term is now popularly used in many more areas and disciplines across the university campus. In a recent study on innovation in Higher Education, innovation is defined as the development of “a new or significantly improved product, process, organisational method or an organization itself” (p.35). It is interesting to note the transformative potentials within this language – the remaking of education, or at least the remoulding of educational approaches and methods. Innovation, however, is far from clear-cut in terms of the incentives and underlying cultures which give rise to it within universities. For those seeking to attempt or support innovation within teaching and learning in Higher Education, it is useful to consider this backdrop and the internal and external forces which have driven innovation within universities. This post explores some of the more significant drivers behind HE innovation; marketisation, widening participation and technology, and discusses the challenges and opportunities along the way.

Marketisation and mass education

Neoliberal markets have courted education for many decades, at all levels of teaching and learning. Education is not a straightforward commodity, however, and it has long evaded the traditional value structures applied to other goods and services. In many ways education is a market-place paradox; its success relied on the very fact that it is innovative, yet it’s creativity and dynamism which typifies much of what we know to be ‘good education’, also resists standards and metrics by which to measure (and sell?) this education. To put it another way, to apply traditional marketplace logic to education is to starve it of the life blood of creativity by which it grows and thrives. This difficulty, however, has not stopped many politicians, investors and managers from attempting educational reform toward a more commodified and marketable structure.

A conflation is seen between increasing tuition fees, coupled with ballooning student debt; increasing competition between institutions for research funding; and more recently, the establishment of metrics by which to measure teaching and learning at universities (and eventually by which to establish variable tuition fees based on performance). The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) seeks to attribute a set of standards to the teaching at each institution and working alongside the National Student Survey (NSS), provides information by which students may make a choice regarding the ‘quality’ of each institution in terms of teaching and student experience. Many voices have been critical of both the TEF and the NSS, pointing out the incompleteness of such standards, however scrupulously applied, and the implications for the wellbeing of staff – the erosion of which will be to the detriment of student satisfaction. Those in favour of these approaches say that for too long HE has got away with stuffy and outdated teaching, with little focus on the wider satisfaction (and wellbeing) of students, and that research has lead the agenda while teaching has been an inconvenience. Whichever view you take, it is hard to argue against the observation that both the TEF and the NSS place the student in the position of a consumer in a marketplace of higher education.

Diversification, widening participation and the research-teaching balance

More students than ever before are enrolling on HE programmes in the UK. Not only that, but a greater diversity – in terms of ethnicity, and socio-economic background, as well as academic ‘ability’ – are going to university (although retention rates of minority groups are low). While this is perhaps reflective of the changing priorities and values of wider society including the demands of employers, this new demographic age for universities has meant that style, approach and design of university programmes have had to change rapidly. It is clear that the old method of off-the-peg teaching approaches and assessment design no longer suit new cohorts of students where a greater range of learning styles and preferences assert themselves. Lecturers have had to become more dynamic in their teaching approaches and more inventive in the design of their programmes. No longer is it appropriate or acceptable to focus your teaching to suit the archetypal academic student, but learning must be tailored toward a great variety of preferences, cultural differences, learning needs and academic abilities. Clearly, this is a situation where many lecturers may feel out of their depth – especially those for whom a career at a university has been previously research-driven. This is about pedagogy in the transformative sense – or the innovative sense – not only about transmission of knowledge. Innovation therefore is about widening participation, and about helping university educators to understand and respond to the needs of their learners. This is about developing better and more dynamic pedagogy, and about working together with students to achieve learning outcomes for all.


While the needs of students have been changing due to wider participation with HE and the demands of future employers, so too have the tools available to educators. Technological developments in education, largely driven by passionate individuals within university departments have gathered pace in recent years. Now, most universities offer ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOC’s) which are free to attend, yet involve teaching using video conferencing and online forum discussions – an entire project strand is dedicated to MOOC’s as part of Exeter’s Education Incubator. Many departments offer virtual field trips (such as the cryosphere virtual trip run by Exeter’s geography department) or complementary virtual environments with which to explore upcoming field locations. Games have been developed to teach about a variety of issues (see Exeter’s own ‘Iceflows Game’ developed by Anne Le Brocq. Novel assessment procedures, such as student discussion forums on topics such as climate change are becoming more popular (such as the pioneering approach used by Wendy Woodland at UWE when I was a geography undergraduate). Almost all institutions have some kind of virtual learning environment which acts as a depository for resources and information on the programme of study, as well as occasional collaborative learning tools. Global Information Systems, such as those provided by ESRI, are also regularly used within planning and spatial disciplines. All of these learning technologies are additionally supplemented by the steadily more accessible world of open-source software, which with the right skillsets, itself provides to opportunity for both faculty and students to become the innovators of their own learning technologies.

All of these technological developments are obviously exciting, yet there is a difficulty here. The skillsets required to both teach and learn with technology are not always readily available. Rolling out technology across departments and institutions is less than straightforward and is an obstacle to large-scale uptake of new teaching approaches. For the most-part, technological innovation and the use of technology in teaching and learning is an individual choice which is often driven by personal motivation for innovation. The role of the wider innovation agenda within HE then, might be to champion and support those wishing to make greater use of technology within their teaching, and to support others to learn how to adopt these novel approaches within their own programmes.


Innovation within HE is driven by a variety of pressures which occur both within institutions and outside of them. If innovation means to repurpose and redesign education to ‘improve’ it, then clearly there are transformative potentials here. The world is changing rapidly – perhaps faster than it has done in human history. Innovation, therefore, holds a particularly important position within our educational approach. Doing things differently, and improving our education is not only good practice – it is an essential component of our obligation to our learners and toward society. Driven by market pressures, changing student preferences and technology; innovation is complex and challenging. The word innovation also hides contradictions and paradoxes which frustrate and undermine. While innovation is an essential part of the educational process, it also threatens the bedrock of the environment from which it emerges. Internally, educators experiment and innovate by developing new teaching approaches appropriate to their discipline and based on their own experiences, understandings and passions; while institutionally, innovation is encouraged in order to reprioritise teaching and to appeal to a new cohort of students who are increasingly occupied with satisfaction and value for money. This is a difficult, if not impossible, task to balance – yet one aspect of learning emerges from the challenges ahead for educational innovation in HE. The space given to innovation must be a creative one, with room to breathe and to grow in a culture of care, and passion for the job of teaching.

By Lewis Winks


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