The Launch of an Academic Innovation Team on Augmented & Virtual Reality in the Higher Education Classroom

As some might recall, I choose three words to guide my work and thinking each year. For 2018, my three words are experiments, prototypes, and competitions. Related to the first two of these words, and amid my new role as Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, today I launched the first of what I hope to be a series of multi-disciplinary Academic Innovation Teams. Over the next six months this group will deepen our understanding of and experience with augmented and virtual reality. From there we will begin to create small tests, experiments, or prototypes that help us explore the benefits and limitations of these technologies.

It is a pretty simple structure. In the first session, we introduced ourselves, shared a bit about our roles at the University, and each explained what we hope to get out of the group. Then we established some shared goals and a bit of a timeline. As such, we will be spending the first two months familiarizing ourselves with more of the scholarly literature about AR and VR in higher education while also getting some hands on experience with current hardware and software, thanks to the leadership of two team members who are also faculty in our computer science department.

We had a good chat about how we want to deepen our knowledge together. As such, we agreed that our learning will take on the form of reviewing and discussing scholarly literature, getting hands on experience with the software and hardware, examining current and emerging applications beyond education (and considering potential educational applications), taking time to consider the important ethical and philosophical aspects of AR & VR, inviting in guest scholars/designers/practitioners who are already doing great work with AR & VR in higher education, and then quickly working toward learning by doing/designing/creating.

As we deepen our understanding in the first two months, this will also give individual team members a chance to clarify their goals and interests for the next phase, the part where we establish individual and/or shared design and development projects related to AR and/or VR in a higher education classroom context. Some of these will be more applied projects in a specific classroom or context, while others might be more formal research projects. Either way, it is my hope to see some good presentations and papers emerge from this group over the next year.

This should make for a rich, rewarding, and productive community. We have faculty from curriculum and instruction, business, computer science, physiology, anatomy, pharmacy, sociology, adult education, instructional technology, English/writing, and nursing. We also have staff on the team who represent student life, IT, and instructional design. Experience ranges from people who have never experienced virtual reality to others who have designed some pretty advanced educational applications. Together we will explore the possibilities, deepen our individual and shared understanding, and (most exciting to me) glean actionable teaching and learning insights through experiments and classroom/context prototypes across disciplines.

The idea of this team itself is an experiment, and I’m excited to co-learn and co-create with this wonderful group over the upcoming months! I’ll do my best to keep you posted of the progress and lessons learned along the way.

A New School Year Gift for Educational Innovators and Difference-Makers

Dear educators, administrators, parents, teachers, and other educational innovators and difference-makers:

Recently I started to think about the beginning of a new school year. In celebration of another year, what could I offer as a gift to teachers, administrators, policy-makers, educational entrepreneurs, parents, students, and others who want to make a difference in education? My first thought related to writing a series of articles that include tips for teachers and others who are starting a new school year. I may still do that this year or the next, but the more that I thought about it, I realized that I already wrote something for teachers. In fact, in addition to my 1000+ online articles, I’ve written five books in the last two years, four of which are written for those in education. So, why not give away one of my books as a new school year gift?

I sent a quick message to the publisher of my first book, Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration in Educational Innovation, suggesting a crazy idea. As you might expect, publishers depend upon the money that they make from published books, so my idea was a radical one. My suggestion was simple.

“I want to give away unlimited free PDF versions of the Missional Moonshots book. What do you think?” To my delight, I received a literal thumbs up.

So, without further ado, here is my new school year gift to anyone who wants to be an innovator and difference-maker this school year. Simply click on the link below to download a free and complete PDF version of my book, a collection a short chapters, each of which offers you tips for how to effect positive change in a learning organization. This is drawn from hundreds of interviews and observations of innovative schools and leaders, over two decades of personal experience, and a good decade of focused research and reading on the subject. I hope and pray that you find this useful.

CLICK HERE to download a free and complete copy of Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration in Educatioanl Innovation by Dr. Bernard Bull 

What Do I ask in return?

This is a gift, so there are no strings attached. Just enjoy. However, if you like what you read, here are two things that you can do.

  1. Share this gift with anyone and everyone who might be interested or can benefit from it.You can send them back to this page to download it so that I can track how many people are interested. All copyright is still in place for this book, so printing, distributing, or selling it to others is not allowed, but there is nothing keeping you from directing people to this article to download it.
  2. Tell me about what you learned, liked, or used. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing from readers of the paper version so far, and I would love to here from you as well.

Other Options for the Book?

If you really want a paper copy or a Kindle version, the book is still for sale on Amazon and other booksellers.

One Last Comment

I hope that you find this gift useful in this new school year. Thank you to the many educators, administrators, parents, students, and others who strive to create rich and rewarding learning experiences and learning communities, and for those with the courage and conviction to challenge the status quo in education, inspired by a clear vision and a compelling “why.”

I hope to get started with a semi-frequent Etale newsletter, occasional new articles on this blog, and new episodes for the MoonshotEdu Show in the near future. Stay tuned for news about that. Of course, I welcome your help spreading the word.

A fellow co-learner,

Bernard Bull

What is a Chief Innovation Officer?

Recently, I got a new title. I still have the old ones. I remain a professor and AVP of Academics. Now I’m also the Chief Innovation Officer. Of course, that begs the question. What is a chief innovation officer? As best as I can tell, it goes back almost twenty years, drawn out of the broader world of research and development, which I find helpful in thinking about the different expressions of chief innovation officers across organizations.

When it comes to research and development, there tend to be three emphases, all of which align with a central purpose. R&D units in companies and organizations have the task of championing and forming innovations that further the core mission and business of a company. Yet, those three emphases are important to recognize.

Sustaining Innovations

There are the sustaining innovations that some R&D units pursue. These relate to enhancements and improvement of existing products and services. This might been revamping an existing product or service to better serve existing users of that product or service. It might also involve reworking a product or service in a way that it meets the need of a new audience.

Another way of looking at sustaining innovations is to think of the learner, customer or end user. Many great sustaining innovations come from observing, learning from and listening to these end users. It is about finding out what is working, what is not, what needs are unmet, what expectations might be unmet or only partially met. Or, it might be about how the current products or services are just not accomplishing the end goals for the user. From that research, we revise existing products or create new ones.

In the world of education, this is where the majority of innovation work focuses. We are learning about what is working and what is not. Then we use that data to improve the student outcomes, student experience, student satisfaction, or a combination of these three.

Disruptive Innovations

Focus upon truly disruptive innovations is almost non-existent in the education space. A truly disruptive innovation creates a new market or disrupts an existing one. It might be a small market, not tapping into the audience served by the dominant and related products and services. Of course, this is speculative. It is heard to determine if a technology or innovation will be disruptive. Yet, we do know a few things. First, disruptive innovations are often ignored or belittled by the largest players in a domain. From a financial perspective, the return on investment might not even look very favorable. So, the small startup or grassroots effort has an opportunity.

Because of the speculative nature, the attempt to find and grow a disruptive innovation is almost certain to include multiple failed attempts. Of course, learning organizations are risk averse and have negative views of failure, which is why most learning organizations don’t venture into this world. Yet, those who do, and do so successfully, tend to create a culture of experimentation and pilots. They take a concept and try it out for different contexts and populations, perhaps a dozen until the right one is discovered.

Curiosity-Driven R&D

There is another category of work that sometimes involved a Chief Innovation Officer. This is heavier one the pure, curiosity-driven research. There are questions posed and research is conducted to seek answers to those questions. There might be my initial application of the knowledge pursued or acquired. This is much more exploratory and not necessarily even focused on a potential product or service. Yet, many great and practical ideas do come from this sort of exploratory work research. The one who conducts the research and the one who applies it to solve real-world problems might even be a different person.

CIO Roles

So, what does this have to do with the role of a Chief Innovation Officer. As I learn more about this role myself, I’ve come to define it this way. The role of the CIO is to champion innovative policies, practices, procedures, and programs that further the mission of the organization. This might come in the form of sustaining innovations. It might involve efforts to identify that right fit for a disruptive technology. It might involve supporting more curiosity-driven research too. At the same time, the CIO might be involved with promoting innovations and collaborations across units, promoting and pursuing that which is unlikely to take root in a single unit. So, someone living and working within the seams of these units might have what it takes to move things forward. In addition, this CIO might be the one to draw people together for shared accountability, all for the sake of innovation in pursuit of the organization’s mission.

The CIO is not necessarily the one doing all of the innovating. Sometimes he/she is, but the primary role is to promote and champion innovation wherever is arises or exists. This will result is a much broader range of innovations, far beyond what a single person or team could accomplish. At least that is how I plan to approach the role.

Innovation as a Means of Educational Problem Solving

A number of years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of colleagues to work through an emerging problem at the University. We spent time defining the problem and exploring the causes of it. We eventually got around to devising a plan of attack to address the problem. True to form, I jumped right into asking questions that I thought might help us innovate our way through the problem.

Of course, innovation is not the only way to solve a problem. Some problems are quite easily addressed by using longstanding practices in our organization. Others can be addressed by drawing from best practices in the field or learning from what worked for others. Still others can be addressed by looking to solutions in parallel fields. However, there are problems where existing solutions will not work, and those call for innovation if we are going to find a viable solution.

As one colleague noted when I started with my innovation questions, “When it comes to solving a problem, Bernard’s default approach is to innovate his way out of it.” That can be a strength, but it can just as often be a weakness. If that description of me is true, then I may well try to innovative my way out of a problem that could be more simply, quickly and inexpensively resolved with a more standard solution.

As such, I interpreted the statement as neither a compliment or a strong critique. I know this about myself. For one reason or another, I seem to have an initial bias toward the unconventional or innovative solution. That doesn’t mean that I have to go with that strategy each time a new problem arises, but it is certainly a good thing to know about yourself. Others have an initial bias toward the standard solution or toward finding out and imitating what others are doing to solve a similar problem. Each of these three have their benefits and drawbacks.

Yet, for the sake of this article, I’d like to make a case for innovation as a form of problem-solving in education, not because it is necessarily the superior option, but because I often see organizations struggle because they are not willing to consider it as an option. They are intimidated by it. They see it as reckless and risky. Or, maybe they just don’t consider it. The problem is that the same old strategies are likely to produce the same old results, and that can be dangerous given the rapid rate of change in education today.

There is a very important caveat to this. When it comes to innovation, we don’t want to put students at risk. It is always important to assess the risks of failure and how this could impact our primary mission of serving students and families. We certainly don’t want to turn students into guinea pigs, although there is something to be said for inviting the students to turn the school itself into a guinea pig (more about that in a future article).

At the same time, just falling back on what we have done and what everyone else has done brings plenty of risks too. First, what works in one situation or context doesn’t necessary work in the next. So, there can be just as much risk trying to play it safe. While we might like to think that we have much of education down to a science, there is still a great deal of art to the enterprise.

Consider this example in higher education. Universities think about student enrollment quite a bit. Selective schools with large endowments think about enrollment much differently than small, tuition-dependent private schools with a limited endowment; but they both think about enrollment. Yet, when it comes to the strategies associated with recruiting that freshman class, there is a large set of rather standard approaches; and that is where almost everyone turns when we face an enrollment problem. They look for what worked in the past and what works for others. Yet, that might be part of the problem.

This became clear to me over the last several years with the growing number of schools starting online degree programs and competing against one another for students or a certain type of student. Because a handful of large for-profit schools set the standard for online recruiting through certain digital advertising strategies, so many people have followed suit. It has certainly been a boon for companies like Google. Yet, as more people started to complete with one another, the competition increased and so did the cost per click. This led to a massive increase in the cost of recruiting a new student. Some pay thousands of dollars to enroll just one student. Yet, if you want to grow by five hundred or a thousand students, using that strategy, you need millions of upfront capital that you can invest in digital ads. Given that many schools were not prepared for that type of an investment, they gladly hired outside for-profit companies who were willing to make an upfront investment in turn for a significant piece of the tuition pie.

So, if you experience an enrollment drop in such an online world, what do you do? You can go with what worked for you in the past and try to spend more money to recruit students. You can look at what others are doing and imitate it. Many of them are doing the same thing. You might assume that the standard cost for recruiting a new student is the only way forward.

The problem is that this is a  dangerous cycle. The more people who do this, the more we raise the cost of recruiting a new student. Eventually, the cost gets so high that only a few players can compete, or it starts to take away money needed to improve the academic quality of the program.

Yet, that isn’t the only option. This is where the third way comes into play. Instead of just doing what worked in the past and looking to the example of others in the space, you can start to consider alternative pathways. What if you challenge the assumption that it should cost thousands to recruit a new student and explore completely different ways to connect with students who might want and benefit from what you have to offer? What if you brainstorm new strategies? You don’t have to disregard the old ways. You just build a more balanced portfolio. You invest some in what works for you. You invest some in what works for others. You invest some in what is more experimental. This is a lesson highlighted for me by a valued colleague.

I happen to think that this approach can work quite well when we face any number of problems or issues in education. We can approach it with this sort of a portfolio investment mindset, making sure that we leave room for some experimental endeavors that might have a bit more risk. Yet, it might also have a huge return for the students and school as well.