The FIRRST Framework for Leading Innovations with Vision, Relevance, and Impact

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

Become a better leader of innovations at your institution! Come play with heuristics for strategic decision-making and vision cultivation. Practical examples and personal relevance will dominate the activities. Leave with more ideas and resources for leading innovation than when you arrived.


A popular speaker and facilitator, Dr. Kelvin Thompson regularly addresses groups throughout the US on topics related to online/blended learning and educational technology while he serves as the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida's (UCF) Center for Distributed Learning ( with a faculty appointment as a graduate faculty scholar in UCF's College of Education & Human Performance. Dr. Thompson has collaborated on the design of hundreds of online and blended courses over the past twenty years and is active in the online education community. Kelvin developed the BlendKit Course open courseware ( as part of UCF's Blended Learning Toolkit, and he also co-hosts TOPcast: The Teaching Online Podcast available on iTunes and at His personal research interests center around how interaction affects learner engagement, and information on his Online Course Criticism qualitative evaluation model for facilitating the scholarship of teaching and learning in online and blended environments is available online ( Kelvin Thompson holds an EdD in curriculum and instruction and an MA in instructional systems technology from UCF and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from The Florida State University. Curriculum vitae is available online at
Thomas Cavanagh, Ph.D. is Vice Provost for Digital Learning at the University of Central Florida. In this role he oversees all classroom technology and the distance learning strategy, policies, and practices of one of the nation’s largest universities, serving 68,000 students, where online learning represents more than 47% of the university's annual credit hours. In his career, Tom has administered e-learning development for both academic (public and private) and industrial (Fortune 500, government/military) audiences. He has been recognized with a number of awards including the WCET Richard Jonsen Award, the USDLA Outstanding Leadership Award, and been named an Online Learning Consortium Fellow. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and serves on a number of national advisory boards. He is also an award-winning author of several mystery novels.

Extended Abstract

Perhaps one difference between managers and leaders is that the former play the hands they are dealt while the latter exert their influence to make changes for the better (i.e., innovate). Leaders (whether at the “top” or the “middle” of organizations) must accomplish the difficult task of maintaining simultaneous oversight of short-range opportunities while also being aware of emerging long-range trends. Leaders must accomplish the difficult task of maintaining simultaneous oversight of short-range opportunities while also being aware of emerging long-range trends. It is understandable for online/blended learning leaders to be concerned with the success of their operations in the here and now. It is also defensible to set performance targets and stretch goals based on a here and now snapshot. However, if one’s vision for the future is constrained by how things are only in the here and now, that is a problem.


In this session we will address the need for online/blended education leaders to keep their organizations nimble to respond to changing institutional realities as they choose when to adopt a new technology/resource called for by others and when to initiate change themselves. This involves understanding the status quo at one’s own institution while also staying current on developments in the broader online education community. It also involves avoiding what might be termed the Tyranny of the Here-and-Now. It is important to give sufficient attention to the there-and-then (i.e., global context and trend forecasting) to avoid an overly provincial perspective. Each quadrant in a matrix for contextual visioning (here/now; there/now; here/then; there/then) has some value in helping the online/blended learning leader be effective in leading innovation.


To lead or follow is a key decision for any educational technology leader, and online/blended learning leaders are no different. While there are advantages to being on the cutting edge (or even the bleeding edge) of a technology adoption, there are also advantages to waiting for others to leap first and work out the inevitable problems (and costs) that may arise. Likewise, the decision to build vs. buy can be a “make or break” scenario for an institution that is striving to succeed in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape. However, no two situations are identical, as are no two institutional contexts.


Leaders must read the signs of the times and position themselves accordingly to exert positive influence on their institutions through their organizations. We ground the activities of this innovation lab within a framework called FIRRST, which is an acronym describing a set of principles that have proven to be effective in helping online/blended higher education leaders make strategic decisions. FIRRST can serve as a useful heuristic for all those who must cultivate innovation in their online/blended learning contexts.


FIRRST Framework
●    Follow the Energy.
●    Invent the Future.
●    Research and Make a Decision.
●    Recognize Resource Limitations.
●    Solve the Big Problems.
●    Take Action.


To be a leader one must actually lead, with all the concomitant messiness associated with difficult decisions. This is especially true for online/blended learning leaders, where the pace of change in technology, pedagogy, and practice seems to accelerate on a daily basis. Keeping up with rapidly-emerging trends while simultaneously attending to the responsibilities of daily operations requires a particular set of leadership skills. While leadership decisions are certainly more art than science, having a heuristic can help to mitigate risk and improve the chance of a successful outcome.


Following the activities outlined below, innovation lab participants will walk away with an action plan for applying the FIRRST decision-making framework and Contextual Visioning Quadrants in their contexts.




  1. Discussion (5 minutes)  

    1. Contextual Visioning “Bingo:” In groups use tokens to plot visioning contexts for recent innovations using the Contextual Visioning Quadrants (handout)

    2. Groups discuss implications of plotted patterns. For instance, when does it make sense for the “here-and-now” to dominate decision-making? Other quadrants?

  2. Demonstration (20 minutes) 

    1. Review FIRRST Framework (with facilitator-provided examples)

      1. Follow the Energy.

      2. Invent the Future.

      3. Research and Make a Decision.

      4. Recognize Resource Limitations.

      5. Solve the Big Problems.

      6. Take Action.

    2. Elicit examples from participants for each element

  3. Innovation (20 minutes) 

    1. Guided application by participants: Select one innovation per table group. Brainstorm progress through the FIRRST framework. Facilitators assist.

    2. Quick debrief on process.

    3. Share supplemental/follow-up resources

    4. Participants make a 30-60-90 Day Plan for applying FIRRST framework and/or Contextual Visioning Quadrants