What Is Meant by “Innovation”?

Most of the literature defines innovation as the implementation not only of new ideas, knowledge, and practices but also of improved ideas, knowledge, and practices (Kostoff, 2003; Mitchell, 2003). Innovation is thus different from reform or change.

The OECD (2016) has suggested that innovation indicators in the education sector should be linked to specific social and educational objectives such as learning outcomes, cost efficiency, equity, or public satisfaction. Indicators in the ODDE field might also include increased access, lower cost, completion rates, equity, and inclusion for learners.

The key point is that innovation should be judged by the extent to which it adds value, either to an institution as a whole, or more specifically for its targeted students.

Why Is Innovation So Important in ODDE?

There are several reasons – or drivers – that make innovation particularly important for ODDE.

Innovation Is Part of the Lifeblood of ODDE

Open and distance education has a long history. Because it originally lay outside conventional education, it was often seen (certainly within the ODDE community) as being radically different and therefore, by definition, innovative.

Another driver of innovation in ODDE is that ODDE has always depended heavily on technology: the postal service, printing, on-demand publishing, radio and television, desktop computers, and then the Internet. The constant change in technology has often been the stimulus for renewed innovation in ODDE.

Another driver of innovation – at least in the past – has been the desire to bring down the cost per unit/student through economies of scale. The large national open universities created in the 1970s are one example. More recently, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are another. However, economies of scale have not proved always to be compatible with maintenance of quality, at least as measured by completion rates. A better understanding now exists about the relationship between cost and quality (see Daniel, Kanwar, & Uvalić-Trumbić, 2009), but the high cost of postsecondary education remains an issue. Politicians and others outside education still tend to see the potential of open and online learning and the use of digital technologies for reducing the costs of education, but this will require yet more innovation in ODDE.

A further driver of innovation – the “open’ part” – has been based on widening access, serving students who have not been well served by conventional institutions. This has resulted in no or lower tuition fees, no prior qualifications being needed for entry to university studies, prior learning assessment, and more recently, open educational resources (OER). Access also has been widened beyond reducing the cost to learners and widening access, to embracing diversity, in race, physical disabilities, and for others marginalized in society, such as prisoners.

However, Covid-19 demonstrated clearly that when all learners need to go online extremely quickly without adequate time for preparation, this can lead to serious problems of inequity, such as lack of access to equipment or adequate bandwidth (see Commonwealth of Learning, 2021). Overcoming such inequities again will require innovation in the delivery of digital services by ODDE if they are to reach the already underserved with digital learning.

So innovation has been – and should continue to be – an essential component of ODDE.

Innovation: Technology or Teaching?

Although there is a long history of innovations brought about by ODDE, nevertheless, there are still challenges. Too often the focus is on technology, but not on improved learning.

A major challenge in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a need to focus on developing the high-level intellectual skills that enable learners not only to meet the rapidly changing demands in the job market due to automation, digitalization, and continuous “churn” in jobs, but also to enable learners to manage their lives and participate more actively and with more autonomy in a digital society, dominated in large part by giant network corporations and increasingly authoritarian governments. Freedom and autonomy in such a context demand a high level of digital literacy in everyone.

Our educational systems are by and large predicated on an industrial model, with a heavy focus on the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, whereas in a digital age, learners need to develop intellectual and practical skills. Students no longer need to study all together at the same time and place. Knowledge, or at least content, is accessible everywhere through the Internet, and increasingly for free. Accessing information is not the problem, but knowing where to find it, how to evaluate it, analyze it, integrate it, and apply it are all skills. This means looking at teaching methods that help develop these, and many other skills, such as independent learning, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills. In order to develop such skills in ODDE, it will be necessary to change teaching methods, use of technology, and organizational structures – in other words, it will be essential to continue to innovate.

So, the test for any attempt at innovation in ODDE should not be: Is it different? Instead, we should ask: Will it lead to better learning suitable for a digital age? This will mean focusing on innovation in teaching methods and management practices as much as on the use of new technologies.

Why Is Innovation So Difficult in ODDE?

Innovation in general is often perceived as being difficult. Governments struggle with innovation strategies, many previously well-established companies have disappeared because they were unable to adapt to a changing external environment (think of Xerox or Kodak), and education in general still reflects the structures and organization of the late nineteenth century industrial age.

After a while, all institutions tend to revert to hierarchical structures geared toward rewarding compliance rather than change. ODDE institutions are no exception. Although radical and innovative when first created, open universities, for instance, became much more bureaucratic as their size increased, and complacent as a result of their initial success.

In particular, open universities created around the mass communications of large-scale printing, radio, and television made heavy investments in specific technologies. Also, being the new players in the game, the large open universities needed to demonstrate the quality of their programs. This was done by using an extensive and expensive course design process, made possible by the large numbers of students enrolling: high fixed cost and low marginal cost course development. Because of the size of their departmental budgets, heads of these “production” departments often wielded considerable powers of decision-making and hence tended to resist changes, especially in technology, that may threaten their power within an organization. Success also breeds complacency: Why change if it is working well?

Furthermore, for almost 20 years between 1970 and 1990, new technologies, such as audio and video cassettes, video discs, and even computer-based learning, were successfully integrated by the large open universities, merely supplementing rather than replacing the core technologies of print and broadcasting.

The Internet changed all that. The natural reaction of the large open universities was again to try to integrate the Internet and other digital technology, adding online discussion forums, and desk-top printing, for instance, while still maintaining their core technology of print, especially.

Dual-mode universities that were primarily not only campus-based but also offered selective distance education courses and programs could not match the high-cost, low-marginal cost model of distance education courses of the large open universities. Distance education course enrolment numbers for dual mode institutions were usually much smaller. They therefore needed a lighter and nimbler course development model.

However, it also meant that when the Internet came along, it was easier for dual mode institutions to change their design model to give much more emphasis to fully online courses using html, web pages, and very quickly, specially designed online learning management systems such as WebCT (which later became Blackboard). WebCT was developed by the University of British Columbia, a very traditional, campus-based institution. Dual-mode institutions found the fully online courses quicker to design and launch and provided quicker and more intensive interaction between students and instructors than their former print-based courses. More importantly, it was easier (although still difficult) for dual mode institutions to switch from print to online, because their investment in print and broadcast technologies was much less.

As a result, by 2019, nearly all campus-based universities in Canada, for instance, were also offering at least some fully online courses for credit. Indeed, Université Laval, a campus-based university in Québec, in 2019 had more online course registrations than either Athabasca University or Téluq, two solely distance education universities in Canada. As a general statement, dual-mode universities have been able to move much more quickly and completely to online learning than the large, distance education universities with a heavy prior investment in older technologies.

Some Lessons About Innovation in ODDE

This very brief (and partial) history of innovation in ODDE offers several lessons about innovation.

  1. 1.

    Because the external world is rapidly changing, we need to develop ways of teaching and learning that meet these changing needs. To be of value, innovation must result in better outcomes; this means focusing as much on new ways of learning or different, more relevant, learning outcomes, as in the use of particular technologies.

  2. 2.

    There are at least two kinds of innovation: innovation that sustains existing organizations; and innovation that disrupts organizations. Incorporating, for instance, video cassettes into an organization already using broadcasting is a sustaining use of technology; using the Internet to switch from print-based or classroom-based courses to fully online courses is a disruptive technology, because it replaces former ways of doing things.

  3. 3.

    Size matters. It is much more difficult to innovate in a large organization or a large department, because there is so much capital (human and financial) invested in maintaining the current system. To encourage and sustain innovation in larger organizations, a much higher level of internal intervention (for instance, an institution-wide, commonly agreed strategic plan for digital learning) or of external threat (for instance, Covid-19) is needed.

  4. 4.

    Innovation is an ongoing need in the field of ODDE, whose main goal is to provide attractive alternatives to the conventional education system. Especially as a result of Covid-19, many conventional institutions are undergoing rapid change and innovation, and this is leading them increasingly into ODDE’s traditional territory; therefore, every ODDE institution needs a strategy for supporting and sustaining innovation that distinguishes it from its competitors, if it is to survive.

Literature Review

It would be fair to say that, despite its importance, innovation and change is an under-researched area in ODDE.

Zawacki-Richter, Alturki, and Aldraiweesh (2017), in an analysis of research areas covered by the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) between 2000 and 2015, ranked innovation and change last, with less than 2 per cent of the published articles being on this topic (compared with, for example, instructional design – 18 per cent). A similar study by Wong, Zeng, and Ho (2016) analyzed articles from seven different journals focused on open and distance learning (ODL). They found that in 2015, only 3 per cent of articles (six in total) were about innovation and change (compared with 21 per cent, or 42 articles, on instructional design).

Nevertheless, there have been a few but still significant studies of innovation and change in ODDE. In 2001, Lockwood and Gooley published “Innovation in Open & Distance Learning: Successful Development of Online and Web-Based Learning” which included 19 case studies of successful innovations in ODL. Although the several technology-based innovations reported in the book are now dated, the Introduction by Fred Lockwood and Chapter 2 on lessons from experience and research on innovation in ODL by Bernadette Robinson are as relevant today as they were more than 20 years ago. Their analysis of the factors that support or inhibit innovation will be referred to frequently in this chapter.

Just over 10 years later, Bates and Sangrà (2011) published “Managing Technology in Higher Education.” Its subtitle, “Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning,” indicated its focus on innovation and change. The book was based on 11 cases (6 from Europe and 5 from North America). Although the topic was broader than innovation in just ODL, two of the cases were open universities, and several of the other cases from dual-mode institutions were related to the development of new blended, online, or distance learning programs or strategies. The book looked at the role of leadership, organizational structures, quality assurance, resources, and barriers to change in supporting or inhibiting innovation. Again, some of the key findings from this book will be referenced later in this chapter.

Naffi (2020) conducted interviews with directors or staff at 19 Centers of Teaching and Learning across five countries regarding the role of Centers for Teaching and Learning in the pivot to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report illustrated the important role of such centers in facilitating and supporting innovation in the move to online teaching and learning.

Lee (2021), using Athabasca University as case study, asked the question: “to what extent can online higher education (HE) be open and innovative at the same time?” Using discourse analysis based on the work of Foucault, an analysis of official and internal documents over the last 40 years, and interviews with current learning designers, Lee argues that there has been an increasing level of discontinuity between the conceptualization of openness and innovation as independent principles and the operationalization of the two: “Being pedagogically innovative by increasing interactivity among students while maintaining the same level of flexibility provided by the independent study model seems very challenging.” This chapter also discusses the institutional conditions that make teaching-oriented innovation more difficult to achieve.

Lastly, in recent years, Contact North in Ontario, Canada, has collected over 200 “Pockets of Innovation” in online, blended, and technology-enhanced learning from higher education institutions around the world. It has summarized these in a single report (Contact North, 2019) that includes a section devoted to organizational planning for online learning.

Then there is a whole world of publications that tend to equate technology with innovation, as Bates and Sangrà (2011) noted. One example of this is the OECD (2016) publication “Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation.” This report concluded (p.3) that “despite the huge potential of digitalisation for fostering and enhancing learning, the impact of digital technologies on education itself has been shallow.” Significantly, it concluded (p.3) that “[education] has not managed to harness technology to raise productivity, improve efficiency, increase quality and foster equity in the way other public sectors have.” However, the focus of the OECD report was on school education, and one wonders whether the OECD would have the same view following higher education’s response to Covid-19.

There are other areas that apply generally to higher education but nevertheless are also relevant to managing innovation and change in ODDE, such as leadership (see Paul, 1990, 2011), organizational culture (Silver, 1998; Zhu & Engels, 2013), and change management (Bradfield & Clark, undated; Brown, 2013), and some articles that embrace all three (see Setzer & Morris, 2015).

There is indeed a large literature on these topics outside of ODDE, or even education, especially from the business world. One must be careful to avoid assuming that what works in business will work equally well in education, but nevertheless there is still much to be learned about successful innovation from these sources. For instance, Rogers’ (1995) “Diffusion of Innovations” is still relevant today. There is much innovation going on at the individual instructor level, but the challenge many times is to move this beyond what Rogers calls “early adopters” into the main teaching body. Similarly, Drucker (2002) commented: “In innovation, there is talent, there is ingenuity, and there is knowledge. But when it’s said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work.”

Thus, although the literature on managing innovation in ODDE itself is quite rare, there are many lessons already learned about managing innovation and change, from both within higher education and outside. The findings are surprisingly consistent between the studies, but it would be fair to say that while institutional leaders are sometimes unaware of or ignore these principles, more often they run into common barriers to change which have proved formidable in the higher education sector.

This chapter will attempt to summarize some of the main issues arising from these studies, as well as draw on the author’s personal experience of managing innovation and change in three open universities and three conventional higher education institutions, as well as his work on Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation.

Five Destructive “myths” About Innovation

Morriss-Olson (2020) states that “one of the major roadblocks in the way of our success is that over time, institutional leaders have accepted a number of harmful myths about innovation as truths. These myths also play a critical role in limiting our willingness to take risks and to pilot and scale up new initiatives.”

  • Myth 1. Innovation is “difficult,” thus leading to an avoidance of even attempting change. Quoting Drucker, Morriss-Olson points out that most effective innovations start small, are simple, and are focused. This means nurturing a climate that encourages individual, small changes, and welcomes sharing and cross-pollination of ideas. Anyone can innovate – but it needs hard work, trial, and error and also needs to be institutionally supported.

  • Myth 2. Innovation “just happens.” On the contrary, most innovations incubate slowly, over several years, and are the result of many small, incremental changes.

  • Myth 3. Innovation happens in a vacuum. Isolating innovation within an organization to a nonoperational “research” area or “skunk-works” may help get something new started, but as Morriss-Olson states: Eventually, “worthwhile innovation initiatives are most likely to succeed over time when they can fully leverage existing organizational assets and capabilities.” In particular, “networks that broadly facilitate shared interactions enable ideas to diffuse, circulate, and combine with other ideas.”

  • Myth 4. Innovation is something only creative geniuses can do. However, Morriss-Olson argues that “people who are presumed to be “genius” innovators most often earned their success through mundane problem-solving methods: hard work and trial and error. What this means is that any one of us and every one of us has the potential to innovate.”

  • Myth 5. Innovation is always good.Innovation is change. And with change there are always winners and losers.” Also, change can have unexpected and unintended consequences.

Usher (2021) is highly critical of government approaches to fostering innovation based on the idea of “moonshots.” Usher argues that governments consider a “moonshot” as “doing something big,” such as being the first to land a man on the moon (a literal moonshot) or Operation Warp Speed to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. However, Usher argues that:

Moonshots are a by-product of existential threats. Countries don’t do moonshots because they wake up one morning and say “hey, let’s do big thing”, they do it because they are deeply terrified of what will happen if they don’t invest heavily in this one complex task.

In most cases, though, innovation starts much smaller, usually in an attempt to fix a particular problem or to improve service to clients or, in the case of ODDE, to learners.

The message that needs to be taken away from these myths or misconceptions is that innovation is not only possible in any organization, but also manageable, if the right steps are taken.

Barriers to Innovation and Change

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there are formidable barriers to innovation and change in all higher education institutions. Bates and Sangrà (2011) identified a number of barriers to innovation from their 11 case studies, and in a totally separate study, involving 426 individuals in multiple ODL projects across 17 countries, Robinson (2000) encountered many of the same challenges:

  1. 1.

    Lack of effective leadership. There are several ways leaders can encourage or inhibit innovation in ODDE. Innovation will be supported if there is a clear vision and strategy for teaching and learning that encompasses modes of delivery, learning outcomes, and teaching methods. This provides a context not only for stimulating innovation but also for evaluating it.

Second, diffused leadership – where a range of people at different levels in the organization have responsibilities for innovation and change – is more likely to foster innovation than a charismatic leader or a single individual being responsible for innovation and change. With charismatic leaders, the change becomes personal; when they leave, the innovation often dies without them.

  1. 2.

    Organizational structure and culture. Bates and Sangrà (2011, p.129) noted that “one major limitation is the industrial-style organizational structure of universities and colleges, and in particular the silos of academic, administrative and technological support units.” Without a supportive, networked, organizational structure, innovations remain isolated and unsupported.

Schein (2005) defines organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that …has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to these problems.” Innovation though can often challenge such basic assumptions – indeed, changing such assumptions may be a direct goal of innovation – but often innovation, especially in teaching, can run afoul of a deeply embedded organizational culture. This particularly applies to what is considered “good teaching” in universities and colleges, such as large lectures (Bligh, 2000), and to power structures, such as the autonomy of the tenured faculty member in deciding what and how to teach. In the worst case, it can result in instructors ignoring the advice of experts in online design, for instance.

  1. 3.

    Lack of systematic training in teaching. Bates and Sangrà (2011, p.195) state that “the use of technology [for teaching] needs to be combined with an understanding of how students learn, how skills and competencies are developed, how knowledge is represented through different media, and how learners use different senses for learning.” Without such basic understanding, innovation in teaching will not be valid or successful – or at least very difficult – because instructors lack the necessary foundation on which to build successful innovations in teaching.

  2. 4.

    Managerial incompetence. Bates and Sangra found in the case studies that program directors, heads of departments, deans, vice-presidents, and vice rectors were often struggling with decision-making regarding the use of technology for teaching and learning. They were often in a position of making decisions without the basic knowledge and understanding of either technology or of basic pedagogy. Without such understanding, it was difficult for such managers to foster or assess potential innovations in teaching. Bates and Sangrà (2011) also noted that there was a tendency to give precedence to IT managers over educators when decisions were needed about technology for teaching, thus ensuring that the innovative technology would be little used by instructors who had not been adequately consulted.

  3. 5.

    Lack of resources. Robinson (2000) noted (p.14) that in 63% of the cases she studied, “innovative ODL initiatives were under-resourced in financial and human terms.” Bates and Sangrà (2011, p.152)) noted that priority in the allocation of resources understandably goes to supporting the traditional teaching system. This means that innovative teaching is either an addition to the regular work of an instructor, or is done “on the side.” However, instructors need time to experiment, innovative teaching often needs to be supported by other specialists, such as instructional designers or media producers, and the innovation needs to be properly evaluated in comparison with traditional methods of teaching.

Both Bates and Sangrà, and Robinson, observed that the relative costs of fully online, blended, and face-to-face teaching were often not well known or understood by managers trying to innovate in ODL. Adequate resources need to be available to support innovation in teaching, if this is a key objective. Bates and Sangrà were clearly critical of the way higher education institutions were approaching innovation and change in 2011. (It should be noted that their criticisms extended as much to ODDE institutions as to more conventional institutions.) There have been some major changes in higher education since then. A good deal of learning has taken place. Thus we need also to look at strategies that have been found to foster innovation and change in teaching and learning.

Strategies to Support Innovative Teaching

Bates and Sangrà (2011), as a result of their 11 case studies, came forward with five strategies to support innovative teaching.

Think Holistically

For innovations to succeed, the full complexity of an organization must be considered. Bates and Sangrà wrote: “At a senior management level, it is essential to think holistically about the management of technology. Senior managers need to have the whole picture about where decisions are made about the use of technology for teaching.” Without “the big picture,” it will be difficult if not impossible to support and expand innovative teaching beyond the individual instructor.

More significantly, many institutions today either have a strategy for e-learning or digital learning or are developing one for the whole institution. For instance, in 2018, 42 per cent of all public universities and colleges in Canada either had a fully implemented e-learning plan or were implementing one, and a further 29% were developing one (Johnson, 2019). These plans involve decisions at all levels, from the senior executive through deans and heads of departments, to individual instructors and often students. Such plans provide a framework to support and nurture innovation in teaching.

Multiple Visions of Teaching and Learning

Although individual instructors will always find ways to innovate in their teaching, Bates and Sangrà (p.218) argue that this needs to be placed in a broader context where institutions – or at least academic departments – are willing fundamentally to rethink the whole teaching and learning paradigm. “We need to move away from the dominant paradigm of the fixed time and place classroom as the default model for university and college teaching, and think of all the many other ways we could organise and manage teaching. In particular, we need to think very concretely about what teaching and learning should look like in the future. Our reach should exceed our grasp, driven by our assessment of the needs of students in the twenty-first century, and not by the existing institutional requirements that they must fit into. The best place to develop such a vision is at the program level.” This though requires individual instructors to work collaboratively to agree curricula, appropriate modes of delivery, and teaching methods, which can again run against the grain of organizational culture.

Strategic Goals for Teaching and Learning

By definition, the results of innovation are often unpredictable. As Morriss-Olson (2020) states, innovation is not always good – or at least not good for everyone. This raises the question then of what we are wanting to achieve in our teaching and learning. Without such a framework or set of criteria, it will be difficult to decide whether or not to support or adopt an innovation. At the same time, as a result of innovation, it may be necessary to rethink or reexamine our academic goals. Bates and Sangrà (2011, p.223) list a whole range of possible academic goals that could be supported by learning technologies, but these need to be defined and agreed particularly at the program level, within an overall academic plan. This leads to the fourth strategy.

An Annual Academic Planning Process That Includes Innovation in Teaching

Bates and Sangrà suggested (p.224-225): “an annual rolling 3- or 5-year planning process for the academic plan which integrates learning technology and academic planning… modified each year in the light of new developments.”

This is where discussion of the balance between online and face-to-face learning, new teaching methods, such as blended or HyFlex learning, the result of the previous year’s innovations, and use and choice of technologies would take place, again, primarily at the program level. Such planning would also focus on supporting and prioritizing innovative teaching in the coming year.

Funding to Support Innovative Teaching

Programs should be encouraged to innovate in their teaching, to look at better ways to deliver and evaluate programs. Funding to support this could be built into the Provost’s budget, where additional funds could be earmarked for programs seeking new and more effective ways to teach, as well as funding for individual instructors who wish to try something new in departments or programs that otherwise are not being innovative (you have to start somewhere). Such funding should require a plan for the evaluation and diffusion of the innovation.

The OECD’s Solution

The OECD report (2016) suggested a number of strategies to support innovation in education, some of which are just as applicable to ODDE institutions:

  • A compelling vision can align internal and external stakeholders around the need for change. Setting ambitious goals, particularly nearly impossible ones, forces the entire system to innovate and drive toward those goals [but see earlier comments about “moonshots” – getting the right balance between “stretchable” and impossible goals is always a challenge].

  • Improved measurement must be the foundation of innovation in education. Based on a solid definition of “improvement” at different levels in the system, regular data collection should assess changes over time in improved pedagogical and organizational practices.

  • Benchmark and track progress: High-quality data at the program and course level allows senior management – and everyone – to see progress toward the goals. It can also be used by senior managers as a discussion point with deans, heads of departments, and instructors to identify and troubleshoot problems.

  • Evaluate and share the performance of new innovation: Innovations need to actually work. For ODDE institutions to encourage quality, there needs to be transparent information on how effective new innovations and technologies are – do they work, over what time period, and based on what criteria?

  • Combine greater accountability and autonomy: Devolving authority to the program level can remove barriers to innovation and allow heads of department and instructors the flexibility to explore new approaches. Increased autonomy needs to be paired with increased accountability, in which such managers and instructors are accountable for the choices and results they deliver. This accountability requires greater transparency and clear performance metrics.

While these recommendations are fine in principle, they come from a business perspective and do not reflect the somewhat different culture of educational institutions. The OECD recommendations need to be modified a little for ODDE (see Section “Is innovation ‘manageable’?”).

A Case Study

To illustrate how different factors, such as adequate resources, leadership, strategic goals, networking across organizational boundaries, and a supportive organizational culture, all influence innovation in an ODDE context, a specific case study will be used, based on the author’s personal experience. The case in point is now 25 years old, which is probably an appropriate timeline to judge the success of the innovation.

The University of British Columbia is a large, campus-based research university, with over 66,000 students. In 1994, the provincial government decided to withhold 1.5% of each public postsecondary institution’s annual operating budget, and to place it in a province-wide “innovation in teaching” fund. The institutions could then submit proposals for supporting innovation in teaching that if accepted would release the withheld funds. In UBC’s case, as a large university with a large budget, the amount withheld was substantial: over $2 million.

The Provost called a special meeting of all the deans and other senior managers to agree on a university-wide proposal to secure the funds (some other institutions left it just to individual faculty to apply for individual innovation grants). Each academic department was asked to develop proposals for innovative teaching, but the Provost also put forward proposals for some central funding, such as a new Centre for Educational Technology. UBC was eventually successful in recovering the full $2 million for its innovating teaching proposal.

Also at the same time, the Dean of Continuing Studies, in consultation with the Provost, hired an external expert in online and distance learning to work, not only with Continuing Studies noncredit programs, but also particularly with the main academic departments that were offering credit- and print-based distance courses, to help move these courses online. The Provost and Dean of Continuing Studies provided a special online course development fund of $1 million for this purpose to be managed by the new Director of Distance Education and Technology.

A young, untenured instructor in the Department of Computer Sciences had also received a small grant from the Innovation Fund to develop an online platform to support his classroom teaching, where he could add text materials and activities for students. This proved to be quite successful, but he needed a relatively small amount of extra money for graduate students to help with the computer programming to turn it into a reliable off-the-shelf platform. The Provost and the Director of Distance Education agreed to allocate some of the online course development money for this purpose, as the platform, called WebCT, could also be modified and used as a standard learning management system for the online courses. WebCT speeded up considerably the design of the fully online courses, as well as supporting the instructor’s classroom teaching. WebCT was the world’s first widely used course management system for higher education. At its height, it was in use by over 10 million students in 80 countries and was acquired several years later by Blackboard Inc.

The university went on not only to convert all of its existing undergraduate print-based distance education courses to fully online courses, but also to develop a new range of online courses, in particular several fully online, cost-recoverable professional masters programs. These programs were based on a carefully constructed business plan, some of which, following discussions with the Provost, were funded by loans from the university Treasury, which invested unallocated cash for building construction usually in safe investments such as guaranteed investment certificates, but in this case used a relatively small amount of this money to kick-start these cost-recoverable programs.

In addition, the Centre for Educational Technology and the Distance Education unit, which had hired additional instructional and web designers, worked with mainline faculty to use technology in their teaching. For instance, a professor of forest ecology, working with a couple of his graduate students and a media producer from Distance Education, developed an interactive CD-ROM to replace a physical “walk through the forest.”

Three years later, as part of UBC’s Academic Plan, Trek 2000, a strategic plan was developed on how to facilitate the use of information technology and new media in learning by faculty, staff, and students. This resulted in a report to Senate in 2000 (University of British Columbia, 2000), which set a number of goals for the development of learning technologies at UBC. A Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology was established by merging the Distance Education Unit from Continuing Studies with the Centre for Educational Technology, which reported to the Provost and supported faculty across all departments.

This burst of successful innovation over a period of 5 years between 1995 and 2000 illustrates a number of key points:

  • Adequate resources: The Innovation Fund and the Distance Education course development fund provided a good deal of flexibility and incentive for online and technology-based learning initiatives.

  • Leadership: The role of the Provost was critical. He pulled together his deans and other senior managers to develop a plan, followed carefully how the Innovation Fund was being used, brought together key people from different departments to ensure collaboration, but devolved actual decisions about innovative teaching to the departments or individual instructors – he did not try to “pick winners.”

  • There was a good deal of cross-organizational collaboration, although later this was rationalized to some extent by a reorganization of roles and funding.

  • There was a plan – in fact, there were two. The first was a centralized proposal to the government for the Innovation Fund, and the second in 2000 for a university-wide approach to the use of learning technologies.

  • There were clear, measurable outcomes that included a world-class Learning Management System; conversion of all print-based courses to fully online courses; the development of new, cost-recoverable online graduate programs; and a university-wide teaching and learning center for faculty development and to support the use of learning technologies.

  • Innovation was not a “one-shot trick” but moved forward on several interrelated fronts and was ongoing over many years.

Is Innovation “manageable”?

This is a good debating question, similar to “Can you teach creativity”? By its nature, innovation is somewhat unpredictable, and certainly a heavy managerial approach could be the kiss of death for innovation in ODDE. “Picking winners,” a favourite with many national governments, is another approach to innovation, but again, the results are often highly disappointing. True innovation often comes from unexpected sources and in contradiction to current managerial directions.

Nevertheless, there are certain approaches that can foster or encourage innovation, as we saw in the previous sections, but it may need a more indirect approach. For instance, the focus should probably not be on innovation itself, but on the educational goals that an ODDE organization is aiming to achieve. Innovation would be one means by which to achieve such goals.

For instance, if we take the Covid-19 crisis, which struck half-way through the Spring semester in 2020, the main goal of most campus-based institutions was to enable students successfully to complete the semester. Given that students, instructors, or staff would not be allowed to congregate on campus or in face-to-face classes, some other way of delivering courses was needed. The answer was to take a mode of delivery that had previously been very specialized and limited to less than 10 per cent of all students and courses, and make that the standard delivery mode, as a short-term solution. Most instructors and students were totally unprepared for online teaching, but they managed it, because there were easy to use tools that allowed instructors to mainly preserve their mode of classroom teaching but in an online environment, and because both instructors and students wanted to save the semester if possible. Over time, lessons were learned, and the teaching improved – innovation was taking place. The goal was not though to move all teaching online or to “innovate”; it was to safeguard the academic year for students. Emergency remote teaching was the innovation that made the goal possible.

ODDE institutions may need to look at the main challenges they are facing and then look to innovation to help resolve those challenges. For instance, there is increasing demand for “21st century skills” such as critical thinking, knowledge management, and digital literacy, and for shorter, more flexible programs that can meet rapidly changing external conditions, especially but not exclusively in the work force.

In particular, as the Commonwealth of Learning report (2021) indicated, without active intervention, digital learning can increase inequity (see also Collis & Vegas, 2020). How can ODDE institutions innovate to reduce such inequity while at the same time increasing the use of digital learning?

What changes would need to be made to curricula and teaching methods to meet such demand? How can these demands be met for all students, and not just a select few? What technologies or new teaching approaches, and new policies, need to be put in place for successful, quality programs of this type? What advantages (and disadvantages) do ODDE institutions have in meeting these goals compared with traditional institutions?

It should be the educational goals here, particularly increased access and equity and inclusion, that should drive innovation in ODDE institutions. Flexible delivery, new curricula, new or different teaching methods, microcredentials, and low cost, accessible tools could all be innovations needed to meet such goals.

Summary and Conclusion

Innovation is part of the life-stream of ODDE institutions. Once they stop innovating, they risk becoming irrelevant, as conventional institutions are increasingly moving into traditional ODDE territory.

Also, there are now other potential competitors for the ODDE market, particularly the large digital technology companies. For instance, Linked-In Learning (formerly known as Lynda.com but now owned by Microsoft) offers more than 16,000 courses, 9000 of which are in English. Each is broken down into multiple short videos with specific learning goals. Linked-In Learning offers content to those studying for professional certification exams or earning continuing education credits. The platform has 34 certification courses. More importantly, Linked-In Learning can analyze all the data on current employer requirements through their job advertising on the Linked-In platform and use that as a base for identifying the latest requirements for training. Similar competition is coming from MOOC providers such as Udemy and Coursera, and from Google Career Certificates. The UK Open University has responded in part with its own MOOC platform, FutureLearn.

However, managing innovation is not a simple process. There are substantial barriers to change built into all educational institutions, and ODDE institutions are no exception. In the end, though, it comes down to having relevant, challenging strategic goals that move the institution forward. This is what should drive innovation. Innovation is a means to an end: more relevant, high quality education for those learners most disadvantaged and not well served by the traditional system or other external competitors. Focusing on how to do that will inevitably lead to more innovation in ODDE, but it will require the step-by-step hard work that Drucker noted more than 20 years ago.