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University educators are innovators too!

Roger Atkinson

The title for this musing originated in the last months of 2015. Some may remember media headlines such as the ABC's 'Billion-dollar innovation scheme crafted in Turnbull's image' [1]. That particular news item stayed in mind as it was notable for the complete absence of the words 'university' and 'education'. So my reaction to this and similar news stories at the time soon became the thought, 'Hey, hang on, university educators are innovators too!' I began to resent an implication that innovation was something belonging only to Industry, Innovation and Science, to quote the new name for the former Department of Industry and Science. I disliked the Australian Government's newly hatched National Innovation and Science Agenda [2] which I felt was focused narrowly upon new technologies, startups, entrepreneurs and investors. What about innovation in university teaching and learning?

Some commentators on the National Innovation and Science Agenda quickly identified neglected priorities for research, for example, 'The list of important challenges that the social sciences, design, arts and humanities are well equipped to tackle is long and nowhere to be found in Australia's research priorities' (Marcus Foth). [3] A few drew attention to an education activity not mentioned in the Agenda, for example '... our fourth most important export has been education services. This is a reflection of the quality of the Australian education system, in particular our university sector' (Tim Mazzarol) [4], though usually without linking explicitly to the innovations that are contributing to the success of this industry. A particularly incisive comment was made by Margaret Gardner, when writing about the May 2016 demise [5] of the Australian Government's Office of Learning and Teaching:

Without a commitment to innovation in university education, how do we expect to nurture future innovators? How will we support collaboration and change in learning and teaching across the sector?... Without a peak agency and focused programs there is no national drive to spread innovation and change in learning and teaching across university education. [6]
Similar comments about the OLT and innovation were made by Tim Pitman and Dawn Bennett [7]:
The Coalition announced in the budget that it would stop funding the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) - an organisation that that has helped to enhance learning and teaching in universities. ... The decision puts teaching innovation in our universities at risk. ... When innovation in higher education is mentioned, most people think of research. Yet it is teaching that is at the core of our universities. In fact, teaching subsidises research. [7]
So, how does the claim 'University educators are innovators too!' relate to information and communication technologies in universities? For some decades ICT has been widely regarded by many as a key component in the drivers for innovation in university teaching and learning. I somehow expected that ICT in university teaching and learning would provide a linking into the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which proclaims that:
Extraordinary technological change is transforming how we live, work, communicate and pursue good ideas. ... Innovation is important to every sector of the economy - from ICT to healthcare, education to agriculture, and defence to transport. Innovation keeps us competitive. It keeps us at the cutting edge. [2]
However, it seems evident that ICT-based innovation in university teaching and learning failed to provide a linking into the Agenda, notwithstanding its explicit invocation of 'ICT' and 'education'. Of course, this failure may be due to numerous other factors, perhaps including a Government view that all kinds of innovation in university teaching and learning, ICT-based or others, were unrelated to their Agenda's themes of new technologies, startups, entrepreneurs and investors. Nevertheless, the Agenda became for me a stimulus for a rethink about the importance of ICT and educational technologies as drivers of innovation in university teaching and learning.

A second stimulus was an editorial [8] in a recent issue of AJET (Australasian Journal of Educational Technology) in which the linking of technologies to driving fundamental change was posed as a question rather than an assertion of importance in that role:

We applaud the work in educational technology innovation and research that adds to our understanding of how technologies can improve the teaching and learning experience within well-defined learning systems. However, we also see a potential for critical research around digital technologies in relation to higher education as a system. How can we use technologies to drive fundamental change? ... We encourage researchers to report on empirical studies or rigorously supported conceptual work that fundamentally reconceptualises teaching in higher education and critically questions existing configurations. [8]
In looking for indicators about the importance of ICT innovations that can 'drive' fundamental change in higher education we could start with the OLT. In the OLT's listing of Grants by priority area 2012-15, cited by Margaret Gardner [6], 13% of grants were classified in the field 'Digital technologies & 21st century learning', much lower than 'Graduate employability' (22%) and 'Pedagogy in higher education' (20%), and similar to 'Assessment' (12%), and 'Student experience' (19%). Not a highly ranked role for technology-based innovation, though we should remember that classifications into 'fields' may obscure important relationships or interactions. For example, a grant identified as 'Pedagogy' may be for a project in which 'technologies' provided an essential infrastructure such as a learning management system - perhaps a case of a 'new innovation' based upon an 'old innovation'?

Amongst many distinguished commentators upon ICT-based innovation in university teaching and learning, I admire a recent contribution from John Daniel in his essay on 'Making sense of blended learning: Treasuring an older tradition or finding a better future?' [9] This quotation from his conclusion emphasises outcomes for students and staff, and pinpoints a key reason for change:

A future of hybrid learning is an opportunity, not a threat. If implemented sensitively and professionally it will lead to higher student performance and greater staff satisfaction than trying to revamp an older model of higher education that was simply not designed for the masses of diverse students seeking higher learning in today's technology-rich age. [9]
Another kind of commentary about ICT innovation in university teaching and learning, based upon consensus within an expert panel, is offered in reports by The New Media Consortium. The 2016 NMC Technology Outlook: Australian tertiary education, done in collaboration with Open Universities Australia, 'identified 9 key trends, 9 significant challenges, and 12 important developments in educational technology'. [10] Whilst the main body of the report is concerned with 'predicting the uptake of emerging technologies', perhaps the most interesting parts from my perspective are the identifications of 'top-ranked trends' and 'top-ranked challenges', as these relate to my rethink about ICT driving higher education innovations. A 'top-ranked' trend such as 'Increasing use of blended learning designs' does promote technology adoption, but can we say that the technologies are 'driving' the innovation we call 'blended learning' (or 'hybrid learning' in the John Daniels quotation above)? Or, to put a more important question, does it really matter whether the technologies are 'driving', or 'being integral', or 'enabling', or 'facilitating'? No, not really, tick all of the above.

There are at least three good reasons underlying the trite 'not really' answer to that question. Firstly, educational technology (or learning technology, as some prefer these days) has many decades of association with the concept of teamwork in conducting good teaching and learning. The UK Open University's use of course teams was a powerful influence upon my thinking in the 1970s and 80s. More recently, ideas about 'TPACK' (technological, pedagogical and content knowledge) have been influential [11]. Within Australian universities, T&L centres or units invariably promote an integration of the technological and pedagogical, usually with an emphasis upon innovation. Curtin University's Innovation Studio [12] and The University of Western Australia's Futures Observatory [13] are good examples of such emphasis (though I'm a little sceptical about their 'rebranding' with catchy titles).

Secondly, there is the 'why bother?' factor. If Government has a narrow and potentially unproductive view of innovation, as illustrated by the National Innovation and Science Agenda, why bother with trying to align innovation in university teaching and learning with their Agenda (as I have mused about, above)? Go boldly and independently in one's own direction for T&L innovation, perhaps aligned with one of NMC's top-ranked trends, 'Rethinking how institutions work'?

Thirdly, a narrow focus upon technological and pedagogical innovations may cloud our visions into other kinds of innovations. Of the many other kinds, one that caught my attention recently as especially innovative was the pitch by the Regional Universities Network, in their publication Clever regions, clever Australia: Policy advice for an incoming Government 2016 [14, 15, 16] An innovative pitch, proclaiming that 'International students should be encouraged to study at regional campuses and to stay and work in regional Australia ...'. It does not align with the National Innovation and Science Agenda, but arguably it could align very well, albeit in a parochial way, with a larger agenda, namely 'jobs and growth'.


  1. ABC News (2015). Billion-dollar innovation scheme crafted in Turnbull's image. ABC News, 7 December.

  2. Australian Government (undated). National Innovation and Science Agenda. [viewed 6 July 2016]

  3. Foth, M. (2015). We need to fund more than just science priorities for Australia's future. The Conversation, 10 November.

  4. Mazzarol, T. (2015). Will the National Innovation and Science Agenda deliver Australia a world class National Innovation System? The Conversation, 15 December.

  5. Australian Government (2016). Redirection of funding administered by the Office for Learning and Teaching.

  6. Gardner, M. (2016). Innovation in learning and teaching is too important to cut. The Conversation, 16 May.

  7. Pitman, T. & Bennett, D. (2016). Explainer: what is the Office for Learning and Teaching - and why does it matter? The Conversation, 23 May.

  8. Heinrich, E., Henderson, M. & Dalgarno, B. (2016). Editorial 32(2): From tinkering to systemic change: The potential of educational technologies. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(2), i-iii.

  9. Daniel, J. (2016). Making sense of blended learning: Treasuring an older tradition or finding a better future? Ontario: Contact North | Contact Nord.

  10. Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A. & Yuhnke, B. (2016). 2016 NMC Technology Outlook for Australian Tertiary Education: A Horizon Project Regional Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

  11. Herring, M. C., Koehler, M. J. & Mishra, P. (Eds) (2016). Handbook of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) for educators, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

  12. Curtin University (undated). Innovation Studio.

  13. The University of Western Australia (undated). Futures Observatory.

  14. Regional Universities Network (2016). Clever regions, clever Australia: Policy advice for an incoming Government 2016.

  15. Hare, J. (2016). Regional unis attract just 5% of overseas students. The Australian, 6 July.

  16. Forbes-Mewett, H. (2016). The impact of regional higher education spaces on the security of international students. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(1), 115-128.

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is longer than the print published version, as it includes references that were omitted for space constraint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2016). University educators are innovators too! HERDSA News, 38(2).

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