#5 Lab blog – How do we know we are creating value?

Our fellows whose Incubator year came to an end in the summer, are currently reviewing the achievements and learning from their projects. I am looking forward to sharing their findings with you really soon. In the meantime, I am thinking through evaluation myself as we review the Incubator’s ten-week Innovation Lab, asking ‘how do we know we are creating value?’

Whilst each innovation project the Incubator supports has its own aims and objective for transforming student learning, the Incubator’s impact is more than the sum of these parts. When I set up the Incubator in 2017, it was my belief that we could build communities of practice where innovators supported and learnt from each other; in which value and visibility were created through the collective. In this way, the Incubator would not only create the best conditions for the success of the projects we were supporting – meaning better experiences and outcomes for our students – but we would build the capacity of educators and the education system to create and sustain meaningful change. In the summer of 2018 one of our first cohort of Incubator fellows told us their year meant:

“I have a broader outlook on education, greater knowledge of how the University works and a different outlook on my own career development.”

This was an early sign that we were getting something fundamental right. However, evidence-based learning is fundamental to what we do. Such signs and moments of insight need to sit along with robust evaluation which enables us to say what value is being created, what we need to do better at, and where there are opportunities we are not still not making the most of.

To evaluate the Innovation Lab we are using a social learning framework (Wenger et al, 2011; Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2019). The framework sets out seven value-creation cycles in social learning. Each value is important in its own right but cumulatively builds the value of the whole. The first four value-creation cycles relate to participants and their projects. Immediate value comes from engagement in the activities. It can include ‘fun, excitement, or a sense of companionship’ (2019, 20). When we work with Incubator fellows I hope that the immediate value includes a sense of being cared for, and cared about; a sense of being in a space that is held for you, that enables you to take risks and undertake innovation work which involves discomfort and challenge. For me, this is fundamental to supporting innovation and for informing fellows own embodied experience of educational space and relationships. The potential value that participants accrue is their learning, the ‘ideas, insights, and resources’ they take from their engagement. This learning may include learning about the organisation; educational theories, practices, or research methods; or it may be the tools or framework of design thinking. This potential becomes applied value when participants use their learning and ‘put things into practice’; the changes in education practice (2011; 20). The successful outputs and outcomes – their impact – are realised value; it’s the stuff they get done and the difference it makes.

How social learning creates value (Wenger-Trayner, B. and Wenger-Trayner, 2019; 21)

The next two cycles of value creation, relate to value ‘beyond the community of practice (2019; 21). To me, this really relates to value for ‘the system’ in building capacity for meaningful change. In engaging with stakeholders and other audiences through their projects, fellows create strategic value for the institution through “the relationships and conversations that Fellows can sustain with the range of people who have a stake in their endeavour” (2019; 61). These people include other members of the university, working across university silos. They also include people working, or studying, in other universities and other local and national organisations, charities, and communities. Fellows also cultivate an enabling value as they ‘enable necessary social-learning processes’ through their projects. Having a project be part of the Incubator really facilitates this through the increased visibility it brings. Others are attentive to the approach and impact of projects. We have encouraged deliberate mechanisms for enabling this value, for example by encouraging fellows to create ‘faculty learning communities’ (Cox, 2004) of others who learn alongside them in their project. The final cycle of value creation, transformative value, concerns our sense of what is possible or desirable. If the value that is created from “expanded images of the world and ourselves” (2019; 80) as these “give meaning to who we are and what we do (and) are necessary for orientating ourselves in the broader social landscapes, reflecting, and setting aspirations.” (2019; 80). Arguably this includes a notion of ‘reframing value’ (2011; 21) outlined in earlier versions of this framework, described as the value created as people revise personal and collective understandings of success through participation in communities of practice.

We are analysing the experiences of Lab participants and coaches reported during short questionnaires done weekly during the Lab and post-completion interviews, using this framework. The picture that is emerging is of value created within each cycle, and thus a cumulative impact. The Lab was very much a pilot and we built learning and recalibration in. Our systematic evaluation will further inform where we take design thinking and social thinking in the coming year.

Watch this space!


Cox, M. (2004) Introduction to Faculty Learning Communities. New directions for teaching and learning. 97, 5-23.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands. [Accessed https://wenger-trayner.com/resources/publications/evaluation-framework/]

Wenger-Trayner, B. and Wenger-Trayner, (2019) Designing for change. Using social learning to understand organisational transformation

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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