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.

How to Predict Educational Trends: It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

People sometimes ask me how I spot or predict educational trends that are likely to stick. I usually share an idea or two, but I thought I would give a little longer answer for those who are interested.

You go to bed one night and wake up in a world of blended learning, online learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and a dozen other phrases. How did that just happen so quickly? While some people might feel like things changed overnight, that never happens when it comes to educational trends. They come about amid years, decades or even longer. If you are not paying attention, it might feel like the changed happened in a day, but it didn’t. There were signs of the impending change for a long time, and anyone with the desire and commitment can learn to read these signs.

I’ve been doing this for decades. Once you get a feel for key factors, you can get good at seeing them develop from a distance. It is not always easy to predict when the innovation is going to reach a critical mass and spread more quickly. I admit to being off as much as a decade in some cases. Yet, we can usually do better than a decade, and we can use this skill to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what is coming. Consider the following fifteen factors that are valuable when you are studying trends likely to shape and change education over time.

Domain Jumping

Lots of promising ideas in education don’t start in education. They begin in entertainment, the world of video games, in the business sector, in health care, or dozens of other domains. Yet, when there is an impactful development in one of these domains, it will eventually influence broader cultures and find its way into education. We can’t always trace the direct moment in which an idea jumps from one domain to education, but by looking at innovations more broadly, we can notice patterns that hint at that future jump.

Level Jumping

Too often, people focus on their small and local world of education. We don’t look across early childhood, elementary, secondary, tertiary, workforce development, continuing education, informal education, and other forms of education. As such, we miss a major development in one area that will likely jump to another level.

Convergence

We also want to look for the mixing of ideas, sometimes from within education, sometimes a mixture of ideas from within and outside of education. This is where two or more seemingly disconnected and distinct ideas come together. This is largely what happened with blended learning. Online learning started first. People basically just imitated what that saw in the classroom in an online environment. Then people discovered distinct benefits of online not possible in face-to-face. Then we had the development of video sharing technologies. These converged with face-to-face teaching to create what we call blended learning today. If you can see various developments and begin to explore what it might look like if they were to combine, you can get ahead of many developments. Of course, you can also be the one to help create the future.

Technology Maturity

In their infancy, most technologies are not quite as impressive as they will be in a decade or two…or three. As new features are added, we begin to discover new possibilities. These technologies mature into things that have greater application and possibility in education. Their ease of use or affordability develop, inviting more people to consider their possibilities in education.

Changing Metaphors

If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend the wonderful little book called The Metaphors We Live By. In it, the author points out the power of a metaphor to change how we think, how we make decisions and the possibilities that we consider. When you start noticing the growth of a new metaphor in a culture or community, you can identify a forthcoming innovation or set of innovations.

Amplifying Technology

Some technologies amplify beliefs, values, and philosophies. When one of those amplifying technologies emerge, they will give greater power to one philosophy or set of values over another. We can use this to predict which trends will win over others. We can also use this to try to find and promote those technologies that best amplify the values and philosophies we support.

Funding Growth

Investors, foundations, and government grants can and do help create the direction of future trends. Money is not the only factor, but when you see significant and persistent investment in an innovation, that is certainly an important factor to consider.

Revenue Potential

There are plenty of financial factors at work in education and when there is a revenue generation potential behind a certain educational technology, this gives it an extra boost. Textbooks didn’t just grow as a dominant curricular resource for a century because they were the best means of teaching and learning. They did so because they met a need and did so while creating lots of money for people and organizations.

Simplicity

In general, easy to understand, concrete or simple innovations gain more traction in education than complex ones. This is true even when a more complex solution is better for students and organizations.

Media Attention

The media doesn’t typically create any educational innovations, but media attention can and does influence awareness and adoption rate. We saw this with Massive Open Online Courses as an example, an innovation that continues to grow to this day even though it no longer gets the frequent media headlines. Yet, the stories and attention around these developments, leaders in the MOOC movement, and key higher education and corporate players, it gained traction rather quickly. This is not a factor that lets us track trends far away, but we can use it to identify 1-3 year developments…even a bit further out.

Superior but Muzzled

There are great innovations, models and ideas that sometimes clash with the agenda of those in power. People ignore or muzzle the innovation to keep their influence. Sometimes this is enough to kill it altogether, but it usually re-appears in another time and place, seeking a place with fertile soil to grow and spread. This is why you can’t always predict which organization will take the lead on a new development. Some try it out early on but don’t have the culture and support to expand. Someone else often creates a new organization and accomplishes much of the earlier vision.

Superior but Isolated

There is incredible work happening in small pockets in education, and most people don’t even know about them. They are serving a small group in amazing ways, but there is either no drive to expand what they are doing, there are not the resources to grow it , or others have just not learned about it yet. When you come across one of these and it truly is superior in some way, keep an eye on it. These can and do blow up on occasion to have a quick and massive expansion.

Karios

Kairos is Greek for the “due season” or the “opportunity time”. It is when a series of cultural and other conditions come together to create an ideal time for a given idea, trend or innovation. Think of it as similar to the idea of “the perfect storm.” If we follow innovations in view of larger cultural developments and trends, we can sometimes see the emergence of a forthcoming kairos.

Policy Change Creates Fertile Ground

Policies can kill and give life to educational trends and innovations. Watch the patterns of debate and lobbying around educational policies to get a sense of which trends are more or less likely to grow and spread.

Compounding Interest

Some downplay or disregard significant growth on a smaller scale. An innovation might increase its impact or reach by 500% but it was so small to start that it didn’t seem like much compared to larger efforts. Yet, don’t forget the law of compounding interest because it can apply to trend and innovation development as well. Some innovations don’t lend themselves to scale and that is important to note, but with time and attention, you can begin to uncover where you are looking at something that can scale and is experiencing compounding effects.

There are plenty of other factors involved in noticing the growth of educational trends and innovations, but careful and collective attention to these fifteen can give you a good sense of what will and will not stick, develop, and expand over the upcoming years and decades. In fact, I’ve pretty much shared how I manage to notice trends early. This can aid you in helping to create the future, prepare for it, challenge trends that you consider dangerous, or just become very good at studying trends in their infancy that will eventually become mainstream and widespread.