Innovations in learning and teaching

Recently I received an email asking me to identify, with almost no constraints, some examples of innovative teaching and learning practices in universities. Gosh, that’s a tricky one. I don’t think I can provide a sensible answer, for several reasons:


  • I’m aware of no teachers (including learning designers, mentors, tutors, coordinators, professors, etc) who have *not* innovated in teaching nor many who don’t do so as a matter of course. There are differing degrees of innovation, naturally, but to teach is to learn and it is necessarily a creative process. I don’t see how it would be possible to teach without innovating. They might not be very astounding or good innovations, of course.
  • Maybe it depends at what scale you are looking at it. If I had no significant innovations in every course that I write and maybe in every lesson or activity I design then I think I would give up now. It could be as small a thing as finding a new way to express an old problem, a use of a trick used elsewhere in a new setting, or as big a thing as a whole new way of conducting the process. It’s all innovation.
  • Innovation in learning is a trickier one still to pin down which reflects an important issue that there are many teaching activities that fail to lead to effective learning and even more learning that involves nothing much like teaching. The use of paper mills for contract cheating and hint sites for exam cheating is pretty innovative sometimes.
  • And then there’s the issue of innovation vs invention – in many universities it is undeniably innovative to use an LMS or get rid of exams while many have dissed such things as prehistoric dinosaurs that are not fit for purpose for over a decade (for the LMS) and over 200 years (for the exam) In each case, about the time it was invented, in fact.
  • Similarly, the kinds of innovation that would matter somewhere like Athabasca would not be the same as for a conventional campus-based university – approaches to self-paced learning, for instance, would have little applicability elsewhere. 
  • Much of this relates to the fact that innovation is very context-sensitive. For some contexts, simply using a different tone of voice might be a major innovation. In others, one might have to try harder.
  • This also relates back to the re-invention problem: much of what we still identify as innovative was suggested by Dewey a hundred years ago. 
  • Is an innovation in making more reliable summative assessments an example of an innovation in learning and teaching? Or a means to improve the efficiency of student script processing using OCR or LSA tools? Or a citation management tool? I’m not sure. It depends on context.
  • What about MOOCs? The teaching is often from within a university but the learning is not.


An innovation, by and large, is a novel application of an existing idea in a different setting. It’s not about inventing something never seen before, but of doing something in a context where it has not been tried previously. This comes back to the adjacent possible and some stronger variants on technological determinism. Once some technologies and systems are in place it is inevitable that other things will follow. In some cases, this is obvious and indisputable: for instance, a combination of LMS availability and a mandate to use it by an institution means that simply using it is not an innovation – you may innovate in the ways you use it, but not simply in using it. In other cases, the effect is subtler but no less compelling. For example, we have long known that dialogue can be a very powerful tool for learning but, for those involved in distance education, the opportunities to use it used to be expensive and impractical, for the most part. When large-scale ubiquitous cheap and simple communication became available it was not innovative to use it – it would be totally bizarre not to use it, in fact, a sign of idiocy or extreme complacency. There may be some details about the implementation and adapting cost-effectively to specific technologies that could be described as innovative, but the imperative to use the tools in the first place for learning is as compelling as the institutional edict: it’s too obvious to be described as an innovation, unless we describe everything we do as an innovation. Which, of course, in some ways it probably is.

So – does anyone have any ideas for answers to the question?  At a large scale I’m thinking that some of the more interesting innovations of the last couple of decades might include (bearing in mind these are not new inventions and there are lots of uninnovative ways to go about them):

  • Google search and Wikipedia: the two most successful online learning tools ever created, I think. Everyone who has ever used them to learn has probably found innovative ways to learn as a result. In terms of impact, these two tools (and their ilk) are having a greater transformative effect on learning in universities and elsewhere than anything since the invention of the printing press. They are the tip of the wedge that will, eventually, completely transform formal education.
  • e-portfolios: nothing new in concept, but the associated pedagogies, benefits of electronic aggregation, supporting tools and processes mean they seem to be gaining a lot of traction the world over and are a darn good learner-centred idea whose time has come.
  • action learning: an old-ish idea (at least early 90s, probably before) but one of the few truly andragogic pedagogies that has achieved some transformative effects where it has been used
  • MOOCs: connectivist approaches, openness, large scaling, lack of coercion to learn, and a genuinely different approach to semi-formal learning make these and their cousins still pretty innovative. It’s not all a good innovation. They probably only benefit a very small proportion of the participants or, more accurately, the ones that really do participate probably gain a lot more than those who participate less, but the use of emergence, crowds, distributed networks, reified connections and so on shows what I believe to be the right direction to be heading, even if the pedagogies, supporting infrastructures, formal processes for recognition and tools are not quite there yet.

I could probably think of hundreds of smaller innovations, ways of using pedagogies and other tools differently, new tools, new processes, new combinations. But that’s just the problem – it’s really hard for me to see the wood for the trees.



I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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