What motivates institutions to prioritise innovative practice in learning and teaching? Where do they look for their inspiration? And what do they hope to achieve?
These were the questions at the heart of a new HEFCE study into innovation in learning and teaching.
The priority for this research was, in this sense, definitely the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ – how does innovative practice arise and under what conditions?
It also focused on institutions rather than specific projects – which was difficult for us as a project team as there are so many interesting individual projects to learn about!
What drives innovation?
In one respect the findings of the research are very clear. Students matter. They are overwhelmingly at the heart of all aspects of institutional innovation.
We were interested to understand the connections between the student interest (how are innovative practices implemented in ways which benefit student outcomes), student demand (what will be perceived as attractive to prospective students), and institutional pressures around finance and efficiency.
Institutions see innovation, in this context, as the main way to deliver student choice, and improve student outcomes and employability. Student feedback about how far learning and teaching practice meets their expectations – whether negative or positive – provides the main ‘push’ or ‘pull’ behind changes.
We can, of course, see other factors at work. Broader institutional performance measures and financial sustainability play their part. But the research also recognised the importance of education for education’s sake, the joy of academia, and the culture of continued improvement.
The diversity of student and staff groups and the need to tailor and adapt approaches was also strongly voiced.
So where do institutions get their inspiration from?
Our findings show that inspiration came from other institutions – in the UK and abroad – and from staff members and their contacts.
Surprisingly, employers did not feature strongly as a source of inspiration for providers, though interestingly students who were employed (or were themselves employers) and brought knowledge and experience from industry were considered a source of potential ideas.
The measure of success – improving student outcomes or survival in a marketised environment?
So what were institutions hoping to achieve by investing in these innovations? Did they want to see positive improvements to the student learning experience? Were efficiency gains expected? Were they hoping to rise up the league tables?
Our discussions indicated that all of these could be drivers for change. For many providers, innovation is seen as absolutely central to maintaining their position in an increasingly competitive market.
However, hard measures of success are difficult to pin down. Programme evaluation processes and student outcome metrics offer proxy indicators, but institutions hanker after more direct evaluation.
Student feedback is clearly the most valuable measure, but using this in isolation poses its own difficulties. The absence of a robust evidence base of what works increases the riskiness of new projects and promotes conservatism.
Barriers to innovation
We can also see common themes when we consider what helps and hinders teaching innovation.
Students, staff and leadership can all work both with and against the grain of new practice depending on the impetus of the individual or the institution.
The absence of senior leadership buy-in can deprive projects of impetus and investment. Staff may be motivated to put their energies into other apparently higher-status activity. And some students may reasonably be concerned about any potential impact on their grades.
How far individuals and the strategic management of the institution get behind the initiative may determine its traction and success.
Following our research in this area and the work of other bodies, such as the HEA and JISC, we have published a call for support from our Catalyst Fund.
These funds will provide opportunities for institutions develop experimental innovations that will advance new practice with a positive impact on student learning.