Faculty and Instructional Innovation

A university president once confided in me that while he loved to see innovative work being done within his institution, its impact was ultimately of little value if no one outside of the university hears about it.

His point being that reputation is the fuel on which universities run; it’s the means by which we attract new students, impress potential donors, attract high-profile academics that bring in research dollars, and other tangible benefits.

This may strike some as more than a little cynical. But it’s a useful reminder of just how differently innovation operates in higher education than in other sectors.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev


Outside of higher education, for example, innovation falls largely to the organisation’s leadership. The vast literature on innovation in the world of business tells organisational leaders how to establish a sense of urgency, embody the changes they want to see in others, align the “troops” around a common vision, and the like. This focus on leadership reflects the top-down, centralised structure that characterises most organisations.

Leading Instructional Innovation in Higher Education

Power and authority are distributed somewhat differently in higher education. University leadership — Provosts, Presidents and others — obviously control budgets and hold considerable power, but they also struggle to drive institution-wide innovations without faculty buy-in, given shared governance and the decentralised structure of the institution.

With respect to teaching and learning, in particular, college and university leaders often off-load some of the responsibility for driving innovation to service departments within the institution. Though these departments rarely have the authority needed to impose new instructional practices on the faculty. Faculty own instructional responsibility, even in online education, where a broader range of skills is called for. Not surprisingly, these service departments are often led and populated by professionals with especially strong people skills required to lead people (i.e. faculty) to change, without the authority to impose it. (Conferences designed for teaching and learning professionals spend a good deal of time on the best ways to drive change among faculty.)

Faculty, on the other hand, have considerable capacity to initiate and develop new instructional strategies. Despite the growing authority of university management, often defined as “managerialism” by critics, faculty maintain a considerable capacity to introduce and develop important ideas and, as many before me have pointed out, an equally impressive capacity not to adopt changes imposed from above.

Faculty are not fully leveraging their political authority and talents to drive innovation in teaching and learning beyond their own courses. Faculty tend to see their own courses as their sole responsibility. As members of this occupation and its culture, they typically support the notion that no one but the faculty member should have influence on how his or her courses are designed and delivered. If you accept this premise, you stick to your “own knitting”. However, this logic may be inadvertently and ironically contributing to the lack of leadership from faculty in instructional innovation. Too often, innovations are designed with one course in mind, and with little attention paid to whether they are reproducible in other courses and disciplines. Even if the innovation could be rightfully applied to other courses and contexts (i.e. effectively scaled), the unique logic of the profession discourages us from fully realizing the broader possibilities.

Six Tips 

So, faculty can and should play a more fundamental role leading instructional innovation within their institutions. But there’s no simple formula or algorithm to follow. Below, we’ve compiled our own list of “quick and dirty tips” to help you get started on the right path.

Start Small, But Think Long-Term

Dramatic, large-scale, “disruptive” innovations get most of the attention. We’re told that we’re in a time of great change; we need to think big.

But when we look closely at most big changes in organizations over the years it becomes clear that most of them started from humble origins. And this is where you should start. Begin locally. Don’t try to change everything at once. Slice off a piece of your larger vision and start by focussing on that, alone. Successful implementation of your first effort will make your second step easier, and more likely to succeed.

They Need You. No, Really!

It may seem to you that you don’t have the capacity or authority to get your idea implemented. You don’t have the right job title. You’ve not spent much time cultivating a network within your institution outside of your academic department. And you’re only an Assistant Professor, to boot (so far).

But what you might be forgetting is that your institution is hungry for your story of innovation. University Presidents need stories to tell about people like you doing interesting work. The public relations department needs content to promote the institution. Fund-raising staff (yeah, those people with the outrageous salaries) need stories of innovation like yours to convince prospective donors that this is an institution worth investing in. And, of course, your bosses— Chairs of Departments, Faculty Deans — want to be add concrete examples to the reports they need to produce each year. The bottom line is that there are many, many people that want to see you succeed.

The Message Matters

Academics are hired and rewarded for providing in-depth, detailed and comprehensive analyses — this is what distinguishes academics from other fields of work. But you’re going to have to fight this instinct, if you are going to lead innovation that is quickly understood, appreciated for its benefits, and adopted within your institution. Your project needs to be captured in a simple, compelling description. The time you invest in crafting a good message will pay significant dividends.

Start with a simple, evocative title and develop a 2–3 sentence that explains its benefits. Think less like an academic, more like a Madison Avenue advertising copywriter.

Don’t Fall in Love with Your Idea (Yet)

Academics work in relative isolation, when compared to other professions. But if you want to launch a successful project that truly resonates with a diverse group of people, you need to start by getting feedback on your core idea. While committees and other group efforts can easily slip into group think and stifle creativity, there are few good ideas that can’t be improved with input. Get input early; before you go public and try to solicit support and resources. This process inevitably improves the clarity of your message, the support you’ll be able to cultivate, and ultimately the value of your work.

What’s In It For Me?

People that are particularly good at leading change in large organizations spend a lot of time thinking about how the project will impact different people in the organization. They use this information, first, to modify the project in small ways that increase the value of the project to other stakeholders. Second, they use it to identify ways in which the work of other people within the organization might be incorporated into the project. For example, if you are proposing using e-portfolios to facilitate self-reflective learning strategies in a course or program, there may be people in the institution that would benefit from the opportunity to conduct research on the project. This could serve as another source of funds, improve overall awareness, or, at the very least, generate publishable research for the institution. Third, leaders use this information to modify the project’s message in order to attract the support of a wider group of stakeholders.

Do it Anyway

You’ll probably need to cut a few corners. Not everything will go as planned. It may seem at times that the project is not worth the effort; that it’s pulling you away from other, worthy pursuits. But do it anyway.

The benefits of your efforts will inevitably transcend the success or failure of your particular instructional innovation. You’ll learn a great deal in the process. You’ll find yourself connecting with other people who share your interests. Action, if morally sound, almost always leads to other good works. People will follow your lead, connecting with you and your work in ways that you can’t anticipate in advance.

Keith Hampson