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What makes innovation successful?

Innovation in Higher Education

Educational Innovation has become a hot topic in universities in recent years. Driven by a range of factors, including increasing marketisation of Higher Education, the wider appeal of degree courses, an upsurge in the use of technology, and a desire to move education beyond the lecture theatre in line with research on good quality educational practice; innovation means doing things differently and shaking up the way we approach teaching and learning in our universities.

The drivers of innovation and both internal and external to our institutions, but so too they are the priorities of both management and faculty, as well as in the interest of students and wider society. Much innovation is said to rest upon the shoulders of university management, who make strategic decisions regarding investments and staffing. However, the incentive and opportunity to drive innovation is not only with management; it also rests with the actions and priorities of staff. The innovation of teaching practice is a blend of both structural decisions and the agency of staff. This post details the main components of successful innovation in HE, and highlights some examples of innovation practice. These examples emerge from across the structure-agency spectrum, with some driven by strategy and management (top-down) while other emerge from the staff body (bottom-up).

What are the hallmarks of success?

Conceptualising successful innovation in HE (as well as unsuccessful examples and the barriers to innovation) have been discussed for many decades. Taking a look through these examples and case studies, as well as research detaining the antecedent conditions for innovation to take root within HE institutions, the hallmarks of successful innovation can be divided into three broad strands: practice and pedagogy; environment and community; and support and recognition.

Practice and pedagogy

While pedagogical approaches are at the forefront of discussion regarding the ‘higher education experience’ today, mainly thanks to the increasing focus on student satisfaction and widening participation  within universities, this has not always been the case. For many engaged with higher education research, the recent interest in ‘innovation’ is not doubt frustrating, for educational researchers have long been advocating a move away from centralised approaches, didactic pedagogies and transmissive learning.

This observation points to one of the central tenants of success for innovation approaches within university; that is the repatriation of educational research and pedagogical delivery. The historical subjugation of pedagogical research has been to the detriment to good teaching approaches and recent interest in this work must be seen as a positive move toward a more equal footing between research and teaching. This notion also speaks to the suggestion that to be ‘an educator’ in HE is to engage with research, not only as a researcher, but also (depending on your role) in order to improve and adapt teaching approaches.

Additionally, successful innovation requires a degree of decentralised decision making. In their comprehensive study of individuals innovators within HE, Sandra Hasanefendic and her colleagues note that amongst the innovative competencies required to affect change within institutions, the capacity, and right, to make decisions as well as access to the social capital in order to attain resources are fundamental to the success of innovation. That is to say, that good innovation requires a distributed set of rights, without fear of rebuttal, and a move away from the dominant top-down structure associated with many HE institutions.

Environment and community

Spaces in which our working and teaching practices take place occupy a core aspect of the innovation landscape. Much work has been undertaken looking at teaching spaces, both physical, and virtual conducive to flipped classrooms, blended learning and group work. However, behind this lays the spaces in which faculty come together to develop, discuss and review their approaches. These spaces of innovation are highly important, as innovation is a social activity requiring social capital, peer support and motivational framing. Spaces of innovation occur then as faculty orchestrated spaces arranged both informally and formally. Examples of informal spaces include ‘learning lunches’ in which educators discuss new ideas, approaches and share resources in common room spaces, while formal spaces might include training and development sessions.

However, spaces of innovation stretch beyond the merely physical spaces to include atmospheres of innovation. Such spaces might operate alongside, or even in spite of physical spaces of innovation and include peer support, motivational framing of new ideas and acknowledgment from colleagues for new approaches and ideas. Such atmospheres speak to the cultures and norms associated with institutions and departments and are linked to past habits as well as the structures of provision offered by management.

Borrowing from concepts of communities of practice can be useful here, as the practice of educational innovation is centred and the community in question drawn from across faculty and management. Communities of practice offer an interesting opportunity to consider innovation within universities, not least because of the renewed focus these arrangements place upon the collectivised staff (community) body, rather than simply looking to management for innovation. In practice, management-led, or top down innovation does not work, rather a robust support for innovation from faculty as well as peer-peer and management-peer motivation are key principles (Brennan et al., 2014, Klein and Sorra, 1996, Noble, 1983). Communities of practice then might be seen as a bridge between the agency of individuals and the structures of the institution, including imbedded cultural norms and ways of working, nurturing a culture of support and recognition.

Support and recognition

While innovation relies upon the practice of individuals and the group efforts of departments, schools, and teams to provide cultures open to new approaches, so too, innovation requires institutional support for doing so. This support comes in multiple forms including physical and structural. However, support also importantly occurs through interpersonal motivation and the provision of resources for innovation.

Research demonstrates that provision of recognition of innovation in teaching and learning, and the visibility this provides to those who attempt innovation is fundamental to the success of future initiatives. While this is the case regarding the way that staff are managed, it is also demonstrably the case when peer support is not available for innovation.

Specifically, support and recognition for innovation involves motivational attitudes toward those taking risks with their educational practice. If innovation is to push the boundaries of normalised behaviours, then for new ideas to emerge support must be given regardless of perceived success. To put it another way, innovation requires failure, or at least limited success some of the time. Creating cultures conducive to innovation require support across peer networks as well as from management, as well as communication between groups of colleagues working across departments or teams.

While the previously mentioned parity between research and teaching focus of academics is necessary in terms of championing the work that is done in educational innovation, it is also necessary for pay and promotion structures to reflect this aspiration and to be demonstrable across institutions. Individual’s ability to leverage social capital, their right to make decisions, to seek support for their ideas and to mediate across groups are clearly important. Creating the institutional cultures under which these conditions can flourish are a challenge yet are fundamental to nurturing effective innovation within HE.


It is clear that looking across the hallmarks of successful innovation, there are no magic bullets with regards to how to foster innovation within universities. Rather, successful innovation is the subject of collaboration of peer groups; partnership working between students, faculty and management; the development of new working spaces; cross-departmental communication and mediation; and access to resources, support, visible acknowledgement and recognition necessary to cultivate new ways of working.

Many institutions are now looking at changing the way spaces look and feel on campus, such as the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus; others have previously established informal spaces of sharing and development such as the learning lunches occurring at University of Exeter and Birmingham; and Plymouth University makes use of a cross-departmental framework for guiding both students and staff for navigating the ‘university experience’ across academic, civic, professional and personal areas of life called the Plymouth Compass. These examples are a small number of the many incredible interventions being made within and across our institutions of Higher Education, and many more continue to emerge. The multiple levels at which innovation is happening, and made possible, can be seen as an opportunity rather than a daunting struggle. The challenge is to create the fertile conditions from which fresh ideas and approaches might develop.


By Lewis Winks


Brennan, J., Ryan, S., Ranga, M., Broek, S., Durazzi, N. & Kamphuis, B. 2014. Study on innovation in higher education: final report. In: EDUCATION, D. F. E. A. T. S. O. I. I. H. (ed.). Luxembourg: Office of the European Union.

Hasanefendic, S., Birkholz, J. M., Horta, H. & Van Der Sijde, P. 2017. Individuals in action: bringing about innovation in higher education. European Journal of Higher Education, 7, 101-119.

Jamieson, P. 2003. Designing more effective on‐campus teaching and learning spaces: A role for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 8, 119-133.

Klein, K. J. & Sorra, J. S. 1996. The challenge of innovation implementation. Academy of management review, 21, 1055-1080.

Noble, C. E. 1983. Anatomy of an unsuccessful innovation. Higher Education Research and Development, 2, 197-204.


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