Aug 14 2015

Can Innovation Be Taught?

Training a tech-savvy workforce requires institutions to rethink classroom-based instruction.

Thomas Edison once said, “There’s a way to do it better. Find it.”

A thriving economy is based on the ability to develop creative innovations that find a way to do things better. A number of today’s successful startups were born out of that notion — to solve mundane pain points in our everyday lives. The concept also can be applied to higher education: Where innovation is key to a thriving economy, why is it so difficult for us to create an environment where innovation flourishes?

One halt to creativity and innovation is the sheer availability and access to education. Whether faced with financial or family obligations, many who seek higher education are under circumstances preventing them from attending a traditional college. Institutions alleviate some of those constraints, incorporating online and other distance learning applications into the regular curriculum. Community colleges look to integrate more online courses as enrollment for in person courses drops and online course enrollment increases.

The Right Stuff

Beyond access, making the best use of time during those formative educational years marks another challenge. Frequently, we define successful students by how well they perform on a cumulative exam, where they reproduce, in three hours, what they have learned from studying class notes, lectures and readings. The 2011 book Academically Adrift states that, on average, college students spend 1,800 hours in class to earn a typical 120-credit bachelor’s degree — a full 75 days in a classroom! Most often, that time is attributed to passive learning and effective factual recall to assess comprehension, rather than true immersion in an actual project or case.

Why Are We Here?

Fostering skills beyond the classroom setting is just as important as studying theories. “Driving the skills agenda,” a May 2015 report published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, cited
49 percent of teachers who said current curriculum was too rigid to allow time for wider skills to be cultivated. Instead, students tend to participate in internships for a true taste of the working world. While that supplements student studies, the experience is often too brief to provide a fulfilling environment to harbor creativity and innovation.

Equally important, training educators ensures that they are up to speed on the latest educational developments and technological advances. While technology continues to influence education in all fields, educators have a tough time keeping up with it. According to The Economist survey, 85 percent of teachers report that advances in technology influence the way they teach.

Clearly, wholly embracing the foundational “four A’s” — availability, accountability, affordability and accessibility — would be the holy grail to innovation and a flourishing economy. So, what must change? Rather than focusing on fixing certain elements of the four A’s, I envision the change much like something my beloved friend and colleague Steve Jobs once said: “Think different.”

Approaching education with the final product — our newest workforce — in mind, rather than the short-term goal of a degree, shifts the focus back to creating an environment that fosters innovation. A project-based learning model is structured with that approach. Students spend more time outside of the classroom in a real job setting, working on projects that put textbook theories to practice and responsibility in their hands. By actively engaging, students take part in the case studies they would normally just read about in textbooks.

How Do We Get There?

Given recent ed tech ­advances, project-based learning is now wholly flexible for students and also provides essential hands-on experiences to stimulate new ideas. Many new, online, project-based learning programs utilize the same communication technology as that used in a real work setting.

Removing constraints to creativity allows future graduates to focus on new ideas and innovations. Preparing students by doing rather than just learning makes them work-ready, providing them a foundation for future innovations.


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