Supporting a Firehose of Innovation


Sarah Frick, Learning Designer at Wiley Educational Service

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Early in my design career I was introduced to the idea of how innovation, namely in technology, is adopted through Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation model. This model shows how new ideas travel through individuals and society based on communication channels, time, and the social system. In the “normal” before times, I imagined this diffusion as a subtle fog of essential oils traveling through the air, gently falling on those that could see it and chose to accept it- those brave early adopters, before gradually hazing through the rest of the system. 

Now, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to imagine something much different, something much more immediate. When a rapid fire of disruption in our health and safety burns into the middle of that bell curve, innovation bursts out as something that looks more like a firehose. 

Currently, we can see this rapid innovation response more publically, and tangibly, in the advancements in healthcare, medicine, and our supply chain. Over here in the Education world, things have been a bit more on the backburner in comparison. After all, we all can just teach online until this is over, right? Everyone has the internet and we can just Zoom through? No. 

This has been a full-on stress test for many educators and their organizations that were not quite ready for online. For those of us on the front lines of teaching and supporting education, for our students, for those of us with children in school, the phrase “pivot to remote” is an understatement. It has, in fact, been more of a jolt, or a rug pulled out. I liken this to my service industry days, when a new waiter was thrown out onto the floor on the busiest Saturday night. It is not until you are immersed in the online world that you can truly see the efforts that it takes to work, the inequities in access that need addressed, and the successful experiences it can produce. 

The research, practices and strategies for successful online learning have been successfully diffusing through the system for quite a while. The idea that any of this is “a new way to teach” is a narrative many know is just not true. Using educational technology and learning via distance is not new in normal times and it’s not new during times of disaster (for further insight into this, see Audrey Watters’ recent talk on Educational Crisis and Ed-Tech: A History). It’s just that now even the late majority and laggards are all at some level of adoption, like it or not, and ready or not. We are fully immersed out here and many are winging it (Rogers, 2003).

This emergency scenario uncovered a lot of holes in systems and institutions. Many were ill-prepared for a major shift to a fully digital scenario. Where there wasn’t a proactive digital learning strategy, there is now an emergency strategy. Where there were assumptions about student equity and access, there are now hundreds of thousands of stories of the real constraints and obstacles. There are students and teachers out here lacking access and support and that is not okay. 

So what is the plan for ensuring we are more prepared and supported? What will each institution decide is best for them? What will fall “look” like? What organizations and institutions are going to come out of the other side of this successfully, or at all? 

As we wait for answers, numbers, data, and decisions as we think forward to the next school year, we hear talk of online, hybrid, blended, hyflex, physical distancing, masks, and all the other options that are on the table. We hear of large corporations and ed tech solutions that may jump in and try to save us. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. 

We do know that students will come back to a much different experience. That experience can not look like this stress test, and it will not look like last year. It must be better than this emergency remote mode, and it can be. 

So how will institutions support and care for their frontline workers in this rapid preparation moment to ensure a positive experience for this next school year?

To get there, we really need a thoughtful undertaking of planning, training and standing up a robust support infrastructure that cannot be patched by any one technology or corporate strategy. Right now is a time to focus on support. We need a focus on principles that empower people, that celebrate champions, and that enable internal teams of experts. 

As we head into summer, a season historically reserved for educators’ professional development, and for down-time and reflection, I want to advocate for the overall principles I have seen to be the most effective in the support of professional faculty and teacher development efforts. 

Whether planning for an in-house approach or looking externally for professional training and support, these are the guiding strategies for support and development that see the highest return on investment.

1. Plan for People First

There are two ends of the spectrum for models of support for this scale of online education planning. One is a course-centered approach, that works with a designer who does much of the production, working in tandem with a subject matter expert who is more hands off with building the course and managing the technology. The other end is more person-centered, where the instructor goes through the training and does most of the production themselves with their new skills. 

Many of us need to reimagine our courses for this next offering, and fast. For most scenarios, there cannot be an Instructional Designer or Academic Technologist on every course right now. It would be wise to pull the most efficient strategies from both ends of the spectrum, with the distinct goal of enabling our educators to feel prepared and capable. There need to be tested and effective templates and examples, course quality checklists and peer review available, AND there needs to be support for building skills to teach in an online environment.

Just like with our students, educators also need a range of learning options, from low threshold entry options to larger long-term advancement opportunities. This type of learning is inherently iterative, and ever-evolving. One-and-done training is not going to cut it. A fancy new LMS or classroom technology is not going to cut it. Educational technology itself is not enough.

The investment needs to be in building up your people first, to enable the teachers to use the technology and online strategies to teach more effectively and reach all students. 

2. Evoke Community

A main value of quality course design is an emphasis on evoking community for the students. This is a time to evoke this community for ourselves and our colleagues as well. Successful faculty and teacher development strategies involve a plan for that community to connect virtually and meaningfully. 

We will have to lean in and collaborate to get through this together- with our own teams and colleagues who need support and have ideas to share, and with the larger online learning community.

Further, collaborative, cohort-based models of development are more efficient. Instructors work on their courses and then take that training back to their colleagues and departments. Not only does this help diffuse skills, but adds another layer of onerous, empowerment, and recognition for the Instructor, who is now a mentor for their colleagues. 

3.  Practice What You Preach

We learn most immediately when we see those we respect and admire, those we consider experts, modeling the desired strategies and behaviors with success. When training to use technology and teach in an online environment, it’s best to do so in an online environment, where immersion in the space puts the instructor in the “seat” of the student. 

Leading up to the next school year, we must home in on our current immersion in the tools we are using to communicate, to prepare to facilitate within those tools effectively, and make sure we reach all students. 

This works most effectively, though, when the institution and leadership has provided a vision and direction for the strategy. Understandably, it’s clear there is a scramble to come up with that vision, especially in a time when budgets are being slashed. If that is the case, then what is needed most now is transparency and authenticity. Leadership itself needs to lean in and call on its experts, frontline workers, and students in these decisions. 

People are making extremely hard decisions on the future of their family, their jobs, their career focus, and their studies based on very real safety and monetary constraints. Stories of layoffs and shoddy business and teaching practices spread like wildfire in the online spaces that we live in. Reputation is more important than ever, and more public than ever. We all want our educational systems to endure.  

As many of us turn in grades these last few weeks, we do so with a layer of empathy and understanding, along with a sigh or relief, that this semester/year was not ideal–not for our students, not for our administrations, and not for us. 

We need to expand and carry forward the current spotlight on care right now in education- “panic-gogy” (via NPR), “pandemogogy” (via Chris Lott) or however you want to look at it, it’s clear there is a huge need for more consideration for student and teacher needs and life situations. That focus really should not be new or novel. We have to keep it in the forefront of our efforts. 

The best case scenario we can hope for is that the firehose of innovation pushes us forward from behind, without knocking us down in its path. We look to our leaders now to make hard decisions in times of uncertainty, we look to each other for support and empathy, and we advocate for a focus on care and an investment in knowledge and skills, so that those of us on the frontlines can support our students, all of our students, most effectively.

Diffusion of Innovation by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Sarah Frick

Sarah Frick is a Learning Designer at Wiley Educational Services, a Visiting Professor at Miami University in Ohio where she teaches design courses for the Department of Emerging Technology Business and Design Program, an OLC Institute Faculty member, and a parent of two school-age children she is homeschooling through this emergency.

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