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IT Innovation and Adoption in Higher Education

A Q & A with Ellen Wagner

WCET Executive Director Ellen D. Wagner [photo, right] will give a keynote at Campus Technology 2011, just prior to the CT 2011 Innovator Awards recognition ceremony. CT asked for her views on IT innovation and adoption in higher education.

Campus Technology: What is the nature of innovation in higher education IT?

Ellen D. Wagner: For me, the simplest way to think about innovations is to think of them as the realizations of new, creative ideas in practice. For many of us, innovations in education are the same as new technology; for others of us working in education, innovations may also mean techniques for using new and familiar technologies in creative ways. If your organization has taken existing pieces of technology and rearranged them in ways that create a whole new way of thinking about them—bravo! That’s really the point: to think of innovations as solutions for responding to the institutional challenges that constrain, or as a way of realizing new capacity that could never be done before. I think that the better half of innovation is really all about design, whether it’s instructional design or information design or experience design… For me, design is the driver, with innovative technology shaping the form and function of the design.

You know, for many of us, the innovators who push us to think about the leading edge can be as much of a pain in the neck as are the so-called laggards. These are the people who live at the edges of our standard distribution curves. By definition, innovators are not like everybody else. Emergent technologies are not necessarily the best candidates for broad, institutional adoption, at least not without a fair amount of testing and evaluation. IT folks need to be taking care of all institutional stakeholders, not just the ones up on that so-called “bleeding edge.” There’s a lot of trial and error that goes on there; while useful from a research and pilot testing perspective, it may be early for newly emergent technologies to be broadly adopted without being evaluated for things like true cost of ownership, return on investment, and so on.

The Gartner Hype Cycle offers a way for people to think about the process that innovative technologies usually go through, from their point of triggering attention to their point of institutional and enterprise adoption. People do get excited about new and shiny bright things. Overly so. The Gartner Hype Cycle calls this the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” There’s a period of time that follows where the “latest thing” falls out of favor. In Gartner Hype Cycle-ese, this is known as the “Trough of Disillusionment.” But then eventually, as familiarity increases, and with an eye on results, people lose their disillusionment and start focusing on the things that the new innovation helps institutions do better. With evidence--and practice--people see value, start adopting the “new,” and before long it turns out to be a pretty good thing.

For what it’s worth, eLearning went through this particular hype cycle. In the past 10 years eLearning was completely over-hyped as a beautiful thing, and then was completely discredited as a hateful, horrible thing. It keeps changing its name and changing its face a little bit. Today, using technologies to provide access to learning experiences, at the point of need, that respond to individual preferences is experiencing a renaissance. All of a sudden it just kind of makes sense--given the world that we live in, the innovations at our disposal, and the driving demands for learning better, faster, cheaper, more accountably than in the past.

CT: Then what about the adopters of innovative technology? Is there such a thing as innovation overload? Given the rate of change around us, are we losing the ability to rely on established methodologies on which to base IT decision making?

EDW: I do think that agility and the ability to adapt and be resourceful are really important, but I think they have always been important. And the idea of the speed of change, well, if one responds to every single change, then you can just count on feeling fetal much of the time. There is research that centers on the whole notion of attention—you just can’t pay attention to that many things. So learning how to filter becomes important. There are some fairly tried and true ways of approaching solving a problem that really do continue to drive a lot of value and give us a chance to figure out which of the many innovations going on out there really do matter for us.

Well-informed decision making has always been at the heart of what any practitioner needs to address. So the need for that particular deliberate decision making is no less important now because there are more things--there just need to be different ways that all that information can now be managed.

As for being able to filter, there are some very specific tips that people can refer to on how to do this better. One of them is making sure that you have a very well articulated plan for your enterprise, so you can figure out what has to be changed and how much has to be changed. And I’m a firm believer in documenting expectations on projects of any kind, because if you don’t have metrics it’s just not going to matter because you’ll have no way of knowing if you’re going to be able to achieve what it is that you are trying to do.

I am nowhere near as Californian as this sounds, but a surfing analogy may fit here: You want to be able to catch the curl and grab a great ride. You don’t want to be buried in the wave. You don’t want it to crash on top of you. So you’ve got to be careful to choose a great wave, and you need to develop some skills before you start putting yourself out there really far.

CT: It may sound obvious, but the idea has been put forward that in technology adoption, and presumably also the adoption of IT innovations, “You don’t start with the technology, you start with the goals of your curriculum or with broader institutional goals.”

EDW: While I agree with what you’re saying, sometimes one needs to accept the reality that technology may rule, because these days, technology does rule. Sometimes. Sometimes, I just have to accept that I will be told I will be using Web conferencing, and so then I need to consider the best ways for deploying Web conferencing solutions. Or a mobile solution. Or an eBook solution. I don’t feel constrained by that. But I’m also aware that there are actually a couple driving forces here: We’re at the point where learning and technology intersect. So you don’t necessarily start and stay with one or the other, though you work with both.

CT: What are some of the ways to foster innovation in higher education IT… or maybe to motivate staff to innovate?

EDW: People like a chance to play. Think about a small percentage of a budget that could be used to put together a technology playpen, or bench labs, or whatever. And think about ways these things can be evaluated and tied back to the master plan. I really think people will be surprised at how much easier it can be to get funding for their projects, if they start thinking in that way.

You might find yourself thinking about being at the tip of the arrow of innovation, but you’ve got to be really careful if you’ve got an entire institution depending on you. Perhaps it is better to think of IT in higher ed as the feathers on the back of the arrow that keep it flying straight and true. You need to have stability.

Still, I do think that if people stop moving, they will die. If people stop innovating they can become so irrelevant that it doesn’t matter anymore and they will move on: They will not matter, and that will happen quickly. So in all of this, remember that if you don’t stay on top of what’s happening there’s a good chance you really won’t matter. And won’t that be a sad day.

Maybe that’s the thing that’s different now: Maybe it’s less about being asked and more about showing up and being counted. And that may be each and every one’s personal innovation--to put ourselves out there in ways that maybe we wouldn’t have done in the past and to achieve a different result.

CT: How can IT leaders make a difference to faculty who want to be the adopters of innovation?

EDW: This is a place where IT can be the heroes in many of these environments--because most faculty really don’t want to have to figure out how to adopt new and innovative technologies. What they want is an experience that engages and inspires. And while IT might not necessarily think of themselves as those who are involved in engaging and inspiring, the fact is that the roads we drive on are the very roads that take us to the places we want to go. It just seems to me like this is such a perfect time for IT folks who may not necessarily have thought of themselves as principally involved in the true mission of their institutions, to make that investment. What a great time to step up and be part of a really different conversation.

[Editor’s note: You can hear Ellen Wagner’s keynote, “Making It Real: The Adoption of IT Innovation in Higher Education,” at Campus Technology’s annual summer conference, held this year in Boston, July 25-28.]

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