Information, Innovation, and Participation

Maybe I’ve just been tired this week, but I’m feeling a little bothered and uncertain after several course readings, videos, and activities related to innovation in the context of digital learning environments. The general impression I’m getting is that while innovation is the ideal, we aren’t doing a good job of it.

I’m wondering: what exactly do we mean by innovation? What is its purpose and what is its function? What are our intentions when we innovate, and in what manner should we do it?  Is innovation deserving of the effort we put into making it happen?

Put another way, I wonder: Are we innovating at the expense of educating?

I suspect that the reason innovation is such a hot topic right now has to do with the ever-increasing amount of information available to learners, as well as the growing number of ways in which that information is disseminated, mediated, and interpreted by media users. As Livingston points out here, we live in a time in which societies are constantly mediatizating: negotiating our relationship with technology even as we allow it to mediate (shape, act as a lens to) our experiences. As such, we exist in a sort of in-between state, eager to use new technologies and consume the media it affords us, but hesitant to truly interact with it, uncertain of the potential. We simultaneously reach out and constrain ourselves. This is the complaint of the would-be innovators: we aren’t pushing enough. Progress swirls and eddies as we look backwards to inch forward.

Holland, in interviewing leaders of various universities and other learning institutions, found that innovation was something that was aspired to, yet unrealized by many institutions as they attempted to move into an “uncertain future.” A number of interviewees described the so-called “innovation” of many MOOCs as nothing more than the rediscovery of things already known by educators and researchers of the earlier online learning era. Groom and Lamb similarly lament the lack of innovation inherent in higher education, citing restrictions placed on learners by learning management systems which are rigid, isolating, and falsely constrained – ironically, in their calls for progress, they mourn the passing of earlier versions of web interactions.

My point here isn’t that looking backwards is bad, nor that pushing forward is good – simply that in our attempts to innovate we keep being drawn back in some ways to the past. While this may seem somewhat counterproductive, I really think this past-anchoring may be more valuable than we tend to realize. If we push forward blindly in our attempts to innovate, we risk overlooking the context in which our ideas and practices are situated. Context is powerful – it can make or break a new technology by shaping the ways in which we see and interact with it.

Perhaps instead of pushing for innovation, we should put more emphasis on learning to think critically, connectedly, and contextually – using the information at our disposal to engage problems more fully and fairly. True innovation, I think, would follow.


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