Innovation in education: improvement or transformation?

Must we innovate in education? Why? What for? Are we experiencing a fad, where everything has to be innovative… also in the world of education? Or is it something more structural, even necessary?

Past January 10 and 11, the Institute of Education Sciences (ICE-UAB) and the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP) organized the VIII Forum on Education. Innovation and networking. The forum began with a morning session to which I took part as a member of the Jaume Bofill Foundation. It was a seminar-like session to share reflections on what do we mean by innovation, how should organizations and people innovate and whether and why is innovation important.

The concept of innovation is fluid and elusive, and quite probably it is good that it is so: it is in the constellation of ways of understanding innovation and it is in the myriad of methods that we have designed as innovative that an ecosystem takes shape in order to encourage and enable an innovative attitude. An attitude based on questioning everything, on putting everything in doubt, on challenging the reality until it gives up in trying to provide an an answer… and then one needs to find some other answer: an innovation.

Why innovate?

A question, however, that ones does not usually put is why innovation, quite different to what for innovation. While the what for tells us where we head to (bringing into the debate also other questions like what and how), the why asks us about the reasons for innovation: we are so imbued with the innovation inertia that we assume that innovation is necessarily good. But, do we really need to innovate? When things are working fine (or even good), do we need to risk and spoil them following a desire for innovation at all costs?

There are probably two main reasons that push us to innovate. Recognizing them, rather than being a justification for ourselves, is also useful as they enable us to shape the kind of innovation that we will conduct. That is, to know why we innovate &mash; or why we should innovate &mash; will be crucial to identify, then, where to apply our innovative effort, where to create this ecosystem that can spark the whole thing, and most especially, what results are to be expected.

The first reason is improvement. We realize that things do not work or do not work well enough, or that they might work even better. And we innovate. Innovation, from this point of view, is not risky, it is incremental, probably leads to a natural evolution of what we are doing, we are not moving in known territory but we have maps that will guide us in the way. We copy, adapt, replace, reinterpret, patch. This is a proactive innovation that enables anticipation to our environment. And it is as necessary as the importance we award to being part of the avant-garde of a cultural field or and economic sector. In education, this type of innovation has historically been reserved for pioneers, the restless ones, even the misfits. With all the connotations — positive and negative — that carry these concepts.

Innovate to transform (oneself)

There is, however, a much more important reason (in my humble opinion) that pushes an innovative approach and it is transformation. Transformation is neither evolutionary nor incremental, but disruptive and often dichotomous: there is a before and an after in a transformating innovation. Transforming innovation usually comes, at its turn, because of two key issues: technological change (comprising as technology everything that is instrumental as tools, methods, protocols, etc.) and shifts of context.

Technological change usually implies, automatically, that the old technology becomes inefficient. That is, new ways of doing the same thing with less resources (again, broadly speaking about resources: people, material, financial, time!). And with inefficiency several tensions arise. Not only the usual restrictions and limitations are accentuated, but the costs of opportunity become unbearable as, especially, unbearable become the frictions between those who are now more efficient because they adopted the new technology and those who are still stuck in the old modus operandi.

The shift of context is even more dramatic, as it affects efficacy: when the context changes, goals also move. Without an adaptation to the new context, without innovation, all our efforts point now to a wrong target. If efficiency is to achieve as many goals as possible (regardless of the means, which are measured in the axis of efficiency), it becomes strictly necessary to innovate but not for improving, but precisely for things to not get worse, for us not to find ourselves like fish out of water.

Paradigm shift towards a knowledge society

At this point, let us grant ourselves a moment to take a distant approach. We are nowadays immersed in a vast socio-technological paradigm shift that is changing how we define and understand the foundations of our society. People and institutions of this society are watching in real time and with their own eyes how technology (efficiency) and context (efficacy) change quickly, inexorably and without turning back.

Before this(these) change(changes) we can, indeed, ask ourselves whether there is a need to innovate, or to improve anything. Or whether we should make evolve what we understand as the “educational system” or “educational institutions”. And these questions are perfectly legitimate.

But it is also legitimate to ask whether we should innovate not in a quest for improvement but just not to lose what we achieved. When we talk about equity in education, we talk about equity in a world where inequalities have shifted, where new inequalities have appeared, in new areas and environments. When we talk about quality, we talk about new skills that we did not even know, with unfound and undisclosed referents with which to compare ourselves. When we speak of excellence we do it in terms of resources and tools that have been replaced by a brand new toolbox.

Thus, it would seem that it is no longer legitimate but now urgent to consider an innovation that is transforming. Basically, because everything around us is changing and at a high speed.

Originally published on March 17, 2014, as Innovació a l’educació: millora o transformació? at the Fundació Jaume Bofill blog at El Diari de l’Educació). All the articles published in that blog can be accessed at the original site in Catalan or here in the English translation.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2014) “Innovation in education: improvement or transformation?” In ICTlogy, #127, April 2014. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4170

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About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. During 2014 I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.