Lessons from 12 Tech Innovators

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education named 12 Tech Innovators who are changing the ways that colleges and universities operate.  These individuals are breaking traditional paradigms and examining how best to support student learning in an era of increased access to technology.  Looking at each of the named Tech Innovators individually, their efforts may at first seem disjointed, as if innovation is pulling education in a hundred different directions at the same time.  For instance, Salman Khan was named a Tech Innovator for his work with Khan Academy and for promoting the concept of the “flipped classroom.”  Francois Grey, from the Tsinghua University, was identified a Tech Innovator for enlisting “citizen scientists” to collect and analyze data by tapping into the collective power of their home computers.  Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, was named for his work developing a competency-based institution which is cost-effective for students.

At first glance, the efforts of the Tech Innovators may seem completely disparate. When examined holistically, however, several themes begin to emerge that can communicate powerful messages for those of us who are working to transform how students interact and learn.

1.  The power of community and collaboration should not be underestimated.  From Francois Grey’s distributed computing to Candace Thile’s team-built online courses through the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, it is clear that for educational innovations to be successful in the 21st Century collaboration needs to occur.  Information is growing at too fast a pace and the challenges facing education are too multifaceted for individuals to tackle alone.  We need to foster collaborative efforts across departments and across institutions to better position ourselves to evolve to meet the changing demands of education.

2.  Access to information is breaking new ground.  Over 98% of South African university students own cell phones.  Rather than viewing the devices as distractions, Laura Czerniewicz saw them as educational opportunities for students who did not traditionally have access to textbooks or laptops.  John P. Wilkin, the executive director of HathiTrust, has worked with 60 partner institutions to built an online digital library with more than 10 million volumes.  Salman Khan has added thousands of educational videos online for people to access for free.  What do these seemingly diverging stories have in common?  They are providing access to information.  As these avenues to access information break new ground, they have the power to provide exciting new learning opportunities for our students.

3.  It’s all about learning.  Looking across the project developed by the identified Tech Innovators, it is clear that any innovation needs to focus on supporting student learning.  While it may be great to utilize some new technology or purchase some new device, if it doesn’t foster student learning than it is a waste of resources.  Take Jim Groom, a professor at the University of Mary Washington.  He avoided using traditional content management system because the features tended to “squash creativity.”  Wanting to develop a more collaborative environment for his students, Groom fashioned together a slew of free, web-based tools to foster a “family” of students enrolled at five different institutions.  Through the tools, students were able to communicate with one another and create digital stories together.  Groom’s focus wasn’t on the tools but on the learning interactions that the tools could support.  This message resonates in the profiles of the other Tech Innovators.

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