Educational Innovation, Real and Fake


“Innovation” has become a buzzword used to make virtually anything sound like a revolutionary breakthrough. An innovation, we’re told, isn’t simply something novel or original, it’s disruptive, groundbreaking, transformative and industry-changing. It’s extolled as a magic bullet and a panacea.

But, of course, all too often “innovation” is just another word for puff, hype and flimflam.

Innovation comes in different flavors. There are sustaining innovations, incremental innovations and disruptive innovations. There are innovations to improve performance, increase efficiency and create new or expand existing markets. There are also organizational innovations, marketing innovations and technological innovations.

Innovations typically take place on one of three dimensions.

  • There’s process innovation (think the automobile assembly line) that significantly re-engineers practices, methods or procedures, improving efficiency and outcomes while cutting costs.
  • There’s product innovation—introducing a new product or service or improving, redesigning or adding functionality to an existing product or service, or altering the user experience.
  • Then there’s business model innovation, which seeks to enhance revenue or profits through shifts in strategy, for example, by entering a new market, marketing in a new way, adding new services or product lines, or altering an organization’s structure. Recent examples include bundling and unbundling services, delivering software as a service, or adopting fee-for-service or subscription-revenue models.

The education sector is as vulnerable to innovation’s allure as economy’s for-profit segments. After all, we, too, are desperate to find ways to cut costs and improve efficiency while also increasing the number and quality of applicants, improving learning and employment outcomes, and advancing equity.

In recent years, higher education has embraced variations on the kinds of process, product and business model innovations found in business. Colleges and universities have, in growing numbers and at enormous expense, adopted new software tools to streamline business processes.

  • ERP—enterprise resource planning—software to manage business activities such as accounting, procurement, project management, risk management and compliance and supply chain operations.
  • CRM—customer relationship management—software to communicate to and manage relationships with alumni, applicants, faculty, staff and students and collect and analyze data about prospective and current students and donors.
  • Data analytics tools to monitor enrollment trends, grades and completion rates at the program and course levels, identify students who are struggling, and track facilities usage.
  • Next-generation student information systems that support fractional credit to allow students to receive credit for certificate programs, skills transcripts that clearly identify the competencies students have acquired and portfolios of student work.

At the same time, faculty, in growing (if insufficient) numbers, are adopting new instructional and assessment tools to make learning more active and grading more efficient. Examples include:

  • Annotation collaboration, text mining and visualization applications, coupled with content creation tools to facilitate development of charts, collaborative websites, infographics, maps, podcasts, video stories and wikis, along with PhET-like simulations in physics, chemistry, math, earth science and biology.
  • Student-response systems to make large lecture classes more interactive.
  • Interactive courseware, including the most sophisticated kinds that embed tutorials and support personalized adaptive learning by varying pace, content and learning trajectories.
  • Artificial intelligence–assisted feedback and assessment tools, like Gradescope, to reduce the time and effort devoted to grading, autograde particular kinds of assignments, and provide statistical insights into student performance.

New business models, too, are emerging, from the most radical—subscription and flat-rate models, like Western Governors’, which allow students to complete as many courses as they can in a term without paying more—to approaches that seek to sharply increase the number of transfer students or master’s students. Other examples include:

  • Competency-based models that substitute demonstrated learning outcomes for seat time.
  • Earn-learn models that award credit for paid internships, cooperative education and apprenticeships.
  • Job-aligned certificate and credentialing programs that can stack into degrees.

I would submit that the innovations most likely to improve student learning and growth and postgraduation employment outcomes involve the learning experience itself.

  1. Innovations at the instructor and staff level:

    When I took a course as a part-time commuter student, I discovered firsthand how utterly disconnected it’s possible for an undergrad to feel. The instructor made no effort to foster a sense of belonging or connection or even engagement with the topic. Nothing about the class took into account students who must, for various reasons, spend minimal time on campus.

    Let’s not leave students adrift. Students need more meaningful interactions with faculty and staff. Let’s not make it easy to flounder. Whether you are faculty or staff, full-time or part-time, rethink your role: Reach out. Serve as a mentor. Insofar as possible, personalize your relationship with your students. Be supportive and encouraging. At the institutional level, fund faculty-student lunches or coffees, breakout sections, learning communities and student interest groups.

  2. Innovations at the course level:

    We need to move beyond the current instructional triad: the lecture, the seminar and the lab. Students need varied learning opportunities, including studio courses, practicums, research experiences and project-based learning opportunities. This also means more active learning and more experiential learning, expanding access to supervised internships, placements, field-based learning, mentored research and service and community-based learning.

  3. Innovations at the student support level:

    Support needs to take a wide variety of forms. Academic support should include breakout sections, organized study groups, peer tutoring, supplemental instruction and various learning centers to assist students with data analysis, foreign languages, math and statistics, the natural sciences, research, and study skills and writing.

    But recognize that nonacademic support is equally important to student success. Treat advising and career, financial and psychological counseling, and disabilities, housing and other support services not simply as transactional and focused on one-time problems, but as opportunities to build students’ financial literacy, study and research skills and their metacognitive and social, emotional and interpersonal competencies.

  4. Innovations at the co-curricular and extracurricular level:

    If a college education is to be truly developmental and transformational, what takes place outside the classroom is nearly as important as what goes on inside. Indeed, many graduates’ memories of college are more bound up with co-curricular and extracurricular activities than the classes themselves.

Consider ways to embed enrichment experiences into existing classes. These might involve virtual field trips, guest lectures, museum visits and performances.

We live in a society in which fake innovations have been normalized. The business world is awash with bogus innovations that overpromise and underdeliver. We see “unicorns” that make no money—subleasing office space, delivering food, replacing taxis or detecting diseases with a single drop of blood—firms that are only kept alive thanks to massive infusions of venture capital and access to cheap loans.

These days, we tend to associate innovation with technology, with 3-D printing, 5G networks, robotics, self-driving cars, social media and wearables. That’s also true in education, where the word “innovation” conjures up visions of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, the metaverse, and, of course, online learning.

But true innovations are those that solve real problems, and the problems that beset higher education are only partly amenable to technological quick fixes. No technology tool, by itself, will successfully address preparation gaps, equitable access to high-demand majors, protracted time to degree, unacceptably low graduation rates or uneven learning outcomes. Improving students’ writing and communication skills, numeracy and statistical literacy, and their research, analytic, interpretive and argumentative skills ultimately require interaction and feedback from committed instructors and staff. Ditto for guiding students to an appropriate major or preparing them for job market success.

The hard truths about educational innovation are three in number:

  1. Student success is not an idea problem; it’s an implementation problem.

    We know quite a bit about the barriers to student success: remedial courses (as opposed to corequisite remediation), belated credit evaluation, late course registration and course unavailability, curricular complexity, gated or restricted majors, high-DFW courses and delayed declaration of a major or shifts in majors after the fourth semester. We also know what works: robust onboarding, mind-set and study skills training, bridge programs, block scheduling (to allow students to balance academic, work and family responsibilities), seamless transfer policies, curricular relevance, proactive interventions, supplemental instruction, strategic grants, curricular and high-impact practices including learning communities and experiential learning opportunities aligned with students’ career goals.

  2. Ensuring student success requires a multifaceted, multidimensional, all-hands-on-deck approach. Student success can’t be achieved one classroom at a time.

    Students’ academic and postgraduation success is an entire campus’s business. It requires engaged staff and faculty who are attentive to students’ needs, insecurities and aspirations. It entails engaging teaching, courses that students regard as relevant and meaningful and regular, substantive and constructive feedback. In addition, student success initiatives must encompass more than academics. Raising levels of success demands that institutions cultivate students’ sense of belonging and connection, pay close attention to their basic needs and attend to their psychological and emotional health. A campus must also give students various ways to engage, whether with their coursework, in developing close relationships with classmates and instructors and through extracurricular activities, including athletics.

  3. Business as usual won’t cut it. But the true innovations higher ed needs don’t come cheap.

    The broad-access institutions that serve the bulk of students mustn’t be satisfied with the status quo. Retention and graduation rates are too low, time to degree too long, equity gaps too wide, learning and employment outcomes too uncertain, and public support for higher education too fragile. In other words, educational innovation is imperative. Still, we must recognize that there are no technological quick fixes, cure-alls or panaceas for higher ed’s many challenges. For student success is, first and foremost, a matter of engagement, motivation, mind-set and persistence and requires expert instructors, purposeful pedagogy and ingenious instructional design. Ultimately, student success is a people problem, one that hinges on the close interaction of student, instructors, advisers, counselors and a host of support specialists.

Achieving a more personalized educational experience won’t come cheap. But raising retention and completion rates is the single most cost-efficient way to control the costs and raise revenue—and the only approach that isn’t exploitative.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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