Innovative Teaching or Innovative Learning

innovateI am preparing a keynote presentation innovation for a faculty at a community college. The campus recently opened a small innovation center with the hope of getting students and faculty to consider new ways of teaching and learning.

In doing some research on this area, I immediately was struck with the split I saw between topics about innovative teaching and innovative learning, as if they were different things. That made me pause. Are they different, the same or inextricably linked?

My talk - "Creating a Culture of Innovation" - will look at how society drives innovation in higher education through the challenges it presents to educators. Increasing demands to lower costs, improving completion rates, competition from alternative credentialing, and the possibility in my home state of New Jersey and other states for free two years of college will all dramatically force shifts in classroom demographics and approaches to teaching and learning.

Innovation requires innovators. In higher education, they can be faculty or administrators who promote pedagogical approaches, such as adaptive and active learning. The innovation of adaptive learning is not so much that adjustments are made to the learning process based on feedback from the learners. Good teachers have been during that forever. The innovation comes from the ways that technologies have been aiding that monitoring of feedback and automating some of the adaptive paths.

Innovation can emerge from philosophical shifts, such as moving to the use of Open Educational Resources.

Innovation can also come from the learning spaces and new technologies made available to teachers and students.

You can find many different approaches to innovation in education, and some of them have come from outside education. One that is out there is agile teaching. Agility is a topic that has been a concern and approach in the business tech world.   

I continue to see examples about the changing world of work that concerns innovation and have many educators considering how they might prepare students better for what they will encounter after graduation. This does not mean job training or vocational skills. It more often is concerned with the learning process, methods of evaluating learning and seeing student applying their learning to new situations. 

For those things, you might be using blended/hybrid courses whose structure is such that theory is always put into practice. Courses using makerspaces and other active learning environments address some of these concerns more than traditional lecture courses.

But I have been hearing about the departure from lecture-style, sage-on-the-stage courses for two decades, and yet I know many courses still follow that model.

In earlier posts here, I have written about innovation or innovators in education or the ideas about the disruptors that make an innovative university, I have said that companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ lives change. For example, they create newer and more powerful phones that have features customers have not asked for. Apple believes it knows what you want before you know you want it. 

But I don't think that model works in education. Our students are often ahead of us with not only technology, but sometimes with innovative ways of learning. Are they ahead of many of their teachers in using their smartphones as computers and portals to information, and apps as tools? Yes.

Making University Websites Global-Ready

globalIn one survey, 94 percent of students Yes to the statement: Prior to considering a school, I examine its website. That is not surprising and we know that an attractive, clear website does a lot to sell the school and promote its brand.

Mix that into globalization and internationalization and you have to consider where your website stands with an international audience.

The emergence of the "knowledge society," online programs and the use of English as the lingua franca for scientific communication are all connected to globalization. Universities often have international interests. Those include everything from study abroad for its American students, international student recruitment and enrollment, research and scholarly collaboration, and programs that have international and intercultural dimension.

Clearly, there is more here than just the look of a website because with an international interest you need to provide and attract prospective and current students, prospective and current faculty, researchers, parents, alumni, and employers while accurately reflecting the institution's style, activities, and reputation.

Much more on this, along with "Best Practices in Institutional Websites for International Visibility" by Dr. Gabriela Geron, EDUCAUSE


Learning Spaces: Industrial to Information Age

classroomHow important is the physical space in which learning occurs? "Learning spaces" has become not only a educational topic, but also a field along with learning space design and human-centered design.

According an online EDUCAUSE eBook on learning spaces:

"The emergence of the constructivist learning paradigm has led to a focus on learning rather than teaching. It allows us to reevaluate classrooms and to consider informal learning spaces as loci for learning. If learning is not confined to scheduled classroom spaces and times, the whole campus—anywhere and at any time—is potentially an effective learning space... learning doesn't just happen in classrooms; learning also occurs outside the lecture hall. New strategies for enabling learning and accommodating the multiple demands on student time have led to rethinking the use, design, and location of learning spaces...

Space, whether physical or virtual, can have a significant impact on learning. Learning Spaces focuses on how learner expectations influence such spaces, the principles and activities that facilitate learning, and the role of technology from the perspective of those who create learning environments: faculty, learning technologists, librarians, and administrators. Information technology has brought unique capabilities to learning spaces, whether stimulating greater interaction through the use of collaborative tools, videoconferencing with international experts, or opening virtual worlds for exploration."

Can be that changes as simple as rearranging seating in a classroom can have a positive effect on learning? In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, TodaySheninger and Murray discuss the transformation of physical spaces and how that affects pedagogy. Murray calls the typical desks in row model the “Cemetery Effect,” a design that goes back to the early 1900s.

More than a 100 years later, this industrial era model survives. Those classrooms of 100 years ago were preparing students to work in factories. Those students would become workers that probably spent their work day performing the same routine task, and often spent their entire career at the same company. That is not the current worker model, but classrooms frequently don't reflect any change.


Rhizomatic Learning

rhizomeRhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. One idea is that, like learning, a rhizome has no beginning or end.

I heard about it years ago probably on Dave Cormier's blog. It has been associated with critical pedagogy, but it came into the zeitgeist again when MOOCs were surging around 2012 along with other emergent online learning practices.

It goes back further to a rather unlikely book, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (French title: Mille plateaux). This is a 1980 philosophy book by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. It talks about the work Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Wilhelm Reich and does not seem like a book for educators. From what I have read about the book, it is a difficult read, or at least possibly a confusing read, because it is itself like a rhizome. The book is non-linear and the reader is invited to move among plateaux in any order. It has been both influential and criticized.

It spawned the idea of rhizomatic learning as pedagogical practices. This is something very much in the realm of learning theory and initially it was considered an application of post-structural thought to education.

It has also been used in discussions of methodologies for net-enabled education. As I said, the rise of the MOOC gave it a shot of interest again. In rhizomatic learning, the path is not goal-directed in the way of hierarchical theories of learning. If you follow this rhizomatic path, you would believe that learning is most effective when learners are allowed to react to evolving circumstances. In that way, this path is fluid and evolving based on the current task and how the participants deal with it. Therefore, it reminds some people of the way roots and rhizomes grow, avoiding obstacles, branching and connecting to other rhizomes while constantly seek nutrients and water as objectives for growth. 

Though most online learning in formal courses does not follow this methodology, MOOCs and some less formal online learning where "the community is the curriculum" do not follow the traditional "instructional design" models. Most of us are used to setting objectives before students are involved in learning, but rhizomatic learning would allow most objectives to emerge, or at least allow for the order of objectives and the ability to add new objectives along the way.

I fall more on the side of George Siemens (who was one of "inventors" of the MOOC) who questions the usefulness of the rhizomatic metaphor. He prefers traditional network analysis, and though rhizomes are a way to describe the structure and form of learning, it doesn't provide a true methodology.

Dave Cormier continues to work on adapting rhizomatic concepts to learning and developing the ideas that he first wrote about in 2008


Teaching With 40 Year Old Software

I read an article that mentioned that someone teaching game design was using the old game "The Oregon Trail" as a simple example of game design. I felt a little wave of nostalgia for that computer game that I used with middle school students in the late 1970s on Apple IIe computers.

What can we teach with 40-year-old software?

The game was developed in 1971 and produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974. My school subscribed to MECC and received many software packages on the big 5.25 very floppy disks which we could duplicate.

The original game was designed to teach about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The single player is a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848. 

But many teachers used it in other ways. In those early day, just teaching students to use the computer and navigate a game was a learning experience. I knew teacher who, like myself, used it was a way to teach cooperation by having players work in pairs or teams and justifiable arguing about choices was encouraged.

I used the game as an example when teaching literature as away to discuss the consequences of actions (draw branching diagram here).

Looking at the game again today via one of the several emulators available online (such as and, it seems about as primitive in its graphics as it did back in 1975 in my classroom. But it worked. My homeroom students enjoyed playing it just for gaming fun, and I was able to incorporate the decision-making aspects into lessons. I taught English, not social studies, and was less interested in the historical aspects of the game. I did use it briefly in an interdisciplinary manner with a social studies teacher, but having students do research into the real Oregon Trail and that period seemed to kill interest in the game itself. 

Apple IIe screenshotIt was one of the most successful games of all time and “The Oregon Trail” was inducted into World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016. If you played it a few times, many of its screens are probably etched into your memory. I recall entering my real family members' names into the game the first time I played, and then sadly dysentery them "die" along the trail - probably from dysentery. It had game play moments (like hunting buffalo) and simple animation, but it was mostly text and so involved a lot of reading.

I would have my students work in small groups and map the game both on a real map of the trail, and then later on a decision tree style "map" of the game's options.

For me, the strength of the game in the classroom was in understanding how decisions could change the game's outcomes and their traveler's fates.

I recall that students would argue about the design. They didn't like the random things that would happen, such as a fire in the wagon destroying objects that were worth game points. But that also worked its way into my discussions with them of literature. Things happen in novels - and our lives - that seem random and out of our control, and they have consequences.

The other software that I used back then which was more sophisticated (though not graphically) was made by Tom Snyder Productions. I met Snyder at an educational conference and we talked about his Decisions, Decisions series. The series focused on the best aspects of what I was using in "Oregon Trail." The series included products on politics and the environment and came with printed material to supplement the games, so "research" was easy and necessary to play well.

I had no luck finding online what happened to Snyder and his company. It seems to have been consumed by Scholastic, though the link I found was a dead end.  I did find something on Amazon, but it doesn't seem that the series was continued or updated recently. It could easily be an online or mobile game. 

Can we use old software to teach new skills? Absolutely. Though these software packages seem crude by today's standards, they are also "classic" curiosities. I haven't taught secondary school students since 2000, so my sense of what is acceptable is lost. Certainly some of these games, or similar decision-tree kinds of games are a very viable classroom tool at all grade levels K-20. Maybe someone has already updated them or created new versions. If not, there is an opportunity.