Innovation is Not Enough: Building Soft Infrastructure to Incubate Good Ideas

Concurrent Session 6

Brief Abstract

Following its early support for MOOCs, Stanford built "soft infrastructure" that fostered and affirmed a diversity of faculty members' values, motivations, and interests.


Dr. Andy Saltarelli is the senior director of evaluation and research in Stanford University’s Office of the Learning Technologies and Spaces. He establishes and facilitates strategic, campus-wide initiatives in digital innovation, learning analytics, and educational research. He leads a team of analysts and data scientists that partner with campus stakeholders to generate insightful and actionable learning data infrastructure. Andy’s disciplinary background is in educational and social psychology and his research investigates how online technologies affect the psychological processes underlying teaching and learning. He has published over 15 research articles in prominent outlets such as the journal Science.
Amy Collier received her doctorate in Family Studies from Texas Woman’s University in 2008. Through her graduate studies in social sciences and 10+ years working in faculty development, Amy has been an advocate for learners and teachers across a variety of educational institutions, from community-based service organizations to large public broad-access universities. Currently, Amy is the Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College, where her strategic vision positions Middlebury as a leader in creating and sustaining a global learning community through digital pedagogies and technologies. Prior to this, Amy was the Senior Director for Inspiration and Outreach in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning at Stanford University, where she oversaw online and blended course design initiatives, conducted research to inform effective teaching practice, and was a strong advocate for evidence-based instructional improvement, strategy and planning.

Extended Abstract

Project Description:

MOOCs have been criticized as the "most expensive faculty development in history." MOOCs can be expensive ó an expense that hardly seems justified for a multimedia facsimile of didactic face-to-face classes. At the same time, this criticism misses a key opportunity: MOOCs can be a seed investment in a grassroots, faculty-driven approach to open and digital education. We argue that MOOCs can serve as portals ó not an end in themselves ó that invite faculty to discover the value and varieties of open learning. They provide an entrÈe to new outlets for faculty to see their academic work impact broader audiences and to feel "empowered and supported in an expanded approach to teaching" (Bass, 2012).

Our arguments are based on in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 16 Stanford faculty who had taught at least one MOOC. We used an interpretivist framework to gather an in-depth understanding of the experiences and social contexts and ways in which faculty made meaning while engaging in digital teaching and learning. We conducted semi-structured interviews with each faculty member that lasted 30-60 minutes, asking questions about their interests in, motivation for, and lived experience of creating open online courses or resources. Faculty described a context that fostered the following four themes:

-Intellectual and professional generosity: For many faculty, MOOCs tapped into their desire to open their instructional materials to a wider audience, provide greater access to high-quality educational content, and share their research in a more accessible way. One professor described her course as the "public dissemination of the research that I care about." Another professor described how this context made it almost impossible for her not to engage in open, digital learning: "One real exciting thing about being part of the Stanford community is the intellectual generosity that exists here."

-Experimentation and risk-taking: Faculty felt safe to test ideas that were ó in their own words ó "crazy," "weird," or "nuts." Our open-ended, collaborative process seemed to provide a safe place for professors to bring the same curiosity to open education as they bring to their research and other scholarly pursuits. One faculty member described how collaborating with instructional design staff provided the safe space for new ideas to form that she, "wouldn't have thought of it in that way if she [staff member] hadn't given me that courage."

-Personal expression: Many faculty felt the instructional context allowed them to express individual differences of style and teaching philosophies as opposed to producing the exact same style of MOOC prevalent with other colleagues or institutions. Accordingly, many faculty spoke about using MOOCs as a platform to express unique personalities, styles, and approaches to teaching. One faculty member described how digital tools gave her a new way to draw students into the learning experience: "I found the best way to get my students enthusiastic about it is to really express my awe, wonder, and excitement about the material.... I think it [the digital medium] allows the visual tools to illustrate that excitement."

-Healthy skepticism: We tried to cultivate a context that tolerated (and sometimes encouraged) a healthy dose of skepticism about MOOCs. A handful of faculty who developed open courses counted themselves among the early skeptics of MOOCs ("I'm not...a huge fan of a lot of the MOOCs, this craziness"). To their surprise, their final courses shattered preconceived notions of what MOOCs "have" to be. For example, one faculty member curated materials for flipped private courses at six institutions around the world, with the MOOC serving as a hub that connected learning communities of students across the globe.

A key contextual thread running through these themes is what we call "soft infrastructure." We define soft infrastructure as "the resources, values, and affirmations that support faculty agency in experimenting with digital learning." While necessary, building "hard infrastructure" ó core IT resources, services, and online platforms, which often come with prescriptive models of use and interaction ó isn't enough. Hard infrastructure and the IT organizations that build it are "often defined by what's necessary rather than what's possible" (Groom & Lamb, 2014). In contrast, soft infrastructure is built on the unique needs and motivations of users and communities and helps to facilitate "user-driven innovation." Instead of prescribing and directing, soft infrastructure seeks to empower faculty to leverage their ideas, insights, and creativity to drive the development of new open and digital learning experiences and approaches. This type of innovation often leads to the creative repurposing of hard infrastructure and remixing of other "older" web technologies in a way that allows new approaches to emerge organically.

The goals of this education session are as follows:
-Discuss the ways in which we developed soft infrastructure and facilitated innovative digital learning initiatives at Stanford
-Describe case studies of exemplar MOOCs and other digital learning projects developed by faculty in our study
-Disseminate the main findings of our study investigating the impact of soft infrastructure and our digital learning initiatives
-Facilitate a discussion where participants can begin thinking about how they might localize a "soft infrastructure approach" to digital learning initiatives at their institutions


Randy Bass, "Disrupting Ourselves The Problem of Learning in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review 47, no. 2 (March/April 2012): 30.

Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, "Reclaiming Innovation," EDUCAUSE Review 49, no. 3 (May/June 2014).