Category Archives: Innovation

Open teaching: sharing responsibility for the learning process

Some years ago I worked in the professional development centre of a university. One of my roles was to run a series of short workshops for new lecturing staff. One of these was focused on developing interactive lectures where learners were more actively engaged than in a traditional lecture.

It was during a later workshop that a participant said to me “I’ve started using some of the things I learned in that session and it’s changed the way I teach. And the students think it’s great.”

I was keen to know exactly what she had changed that was working so well. I thought maybe there was one simple teaching technique she had used which had made a lot of a difference, and that maybe I could pass this on to others.

But what she told me was unexpected: the key thing was that she had gone to her next lecture and talked to the students about some of the ideas raised in our session. So she and her students had discussed some ideas about effective teaching and learning and agreed to give some of the strategies a go.

I had long thought that classrooms needed to be more open and democratic, and that the rationale for choosing and using specific approaches to teaching and learning should be made more explicit. But this lecturer had gone beyond that: she didn’t just say “here’s what I plan to do and why”, she said “here are some ideas about teaching and learning, I’d like to try some of these approaches, what do you think?” And then she engaged in discussion with the learners about how they could go about it. I was more used to lecturers saying to me “that’s all very well, but it wouldn’t work with my students/in my situation/in my subject area…”

So this person’s approach seemed simultaneously quite sophisticated and quite naive:

Sophisticated, because it required a level of trust and confidence that I wasn’t used to seeing, along with a willingness to explore new ideas and approaches.

Naive, because it seemed this lecturer had not yet been ‘inducted’ into the accepted ways of working wherein the responsibility for choosing learning activities lies solely with the teacher. This accepted way of working seems to place more power in the hands of the teacher, and yet can serve to make teaching a more anxious and isolated profession.

Perhaps if there is one change that would benefit our higher education system more than others it is this: not a new technology, not a new technique, but an approach based on making teaching and learning processes more explicit and a greater degree of shared responsibility for teaching and learning processes.

Photo of Sorbonnne University courtesy of the photographic service of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Holistic alignment model for planning innovation

In the education sector, adoption of new technology or pedagogical approaches is often undertaken without a comprehensive analysis of the relevant factors. For example, the potential benefits of the innovation are often considered in isolation from the risks or drawbacks. Implementing an innovation based on the glowing description of a vendor or a one-eyed enthusiast often leads to disappointment!

The Open Access Newsletter site relies on gathering only positive stories about open access, not the negative ones. While this approach might be well-justified and valid for the newsletter’s purposes of influencing policy, it’s not necessarily a good model for practitioners implementing change.

Why affects How

In working with educators to plan and implement innovation, I’ve found that the perceived or expected benefits of an education innovation are closely linked to how the innovation is implemented. A similar link exists between the risks or drawbacks of the innovation and the way it is implemented. Now this may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often this aspect is not well considered. For example, I’ve seen an innovation such as the introduction of self-assessment to a programme implemented in such a way that its benefits were minimised and the risks and drawbacks maximised.

In other words, the benefits (why) and risks need to be aligned with how the innovation is implemented, at both a strategic level and a practical level.

In addition, it’s important to consider the context of the innovation, including factors such as the distinctive characteristics of the organisation, the programme and the learners. For example, actual benefits in one cultural setting may work in opposition to the specific strengths of the organisation in another cultural setting and undermine its effectiveness – the innovation can cause damage rather than bring benefits. In analysing organisational characteristics, aspects of an appreciative inquiry approach can be very useful to balance an analysis of the ‘gaps’.

Holistic Alignment Model

Through my work with various education organisations I’ve developed a model which I’ve found useful. Because it focuses on considering the whole picture and aligning the various factors, I’ve called it the holistic alignment model. Despite the grandiose title it’s very much a work in progress, and feedback is welcomed. As well as a description of the factors to consider, there’s a suggested process for helping establish the alignment.