Thought Leader Interview: Rolin Moe on Innovation

The head of a small university’s "academic innovation" office explains why that phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms, and how the office helps professors amplify creative approaches to teaching and learning.

December 13, 2017
Rolin Moe (left) and Doug Lederman

The higher education technology landscape is littered with buzzwords, and perhaps none is as omnipresent right now as “innovation.” More often than not these days, it is used to describe what higher education lacks, and desperately needs.

But what does it really mean in the higher ed context, philosophically and practically? Can it coexist with long-standing academic traditions of excellence, quality and considered change? Or is the phrase “academic innovation” an oxymoron?

Rolin Moe is well placed to consider those questions. Moe, assistant professor and director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University, sat down for an interview with “Inside Digital Learning” last month. The conversation is one of a series conducted by Inside Higher Ed's Doug Lederman at the Online Learning Consortium's Accelerate conference in Orlando, Fla.

The interviews were sponsored by OLC and “Inside Digital Learning,” and conducted on the Shindig video platform.

A partial, edited transcript of the conversation with Moe appears below.

Q: There are probably some people for whom the idea of "innovation" and "academic" in the same title doesn't really work. I think that's unfair, and higher ed is frequently bashed for not innovating and not adapting, which I think history shows is not quite accurate. Maybe start by laying out, if you can -- and hopefully you can do it in ways that mere mortals like me can understand -- the philosophical view of innovation and how you come at it from a scholarly standpoint. Because it sounds like that informs what you're trying to do practically?

A: So my background is as an educational technologist … with specific technologies for students with learning disabilities, day-to-day operations of the campus, learning management. And in doing that and putting in a critical framework that I've had since my undergraduate days and beyond, I'm always looking for those places where we believe we have a conceptual framework but we don't. That we just assume [a] word has a meaning universally, but it actually has quite a few different definitions.

MOOC was the first one for me. I was getting my doctorate right when the MOOC [phenomenon] took off. So I did my dissertation … about … the future of the MOOCs. It was really interesting to publish in 2013 and see things such as the pivots to corporate [training] … The idea that this was omni-benevolent just by fiat was an incorrect one.

And when the MOOCs started to fall away, I noticed that "innovation" was in many ways supplanting that in educational-technology conversations. And so there's a wonderful book by a French Canadian historian Benoît Godin called Innovation Contested. He gives a 2,005-year history of innovation. A word started as a political word for Socrates and Aristotle and Plato, and becomes a pejorative after the English reformation in the 15th and 16th century. Only comes back as a word that we use in everyday society because of French socialism in the 19th century and turns into what we think of today in the 20th century with economists.

So there are all of these interesting definitions you have … which makes it a really difficult word to have a conceptual understanding about. So we throw it around in these conversations. But are we all thinking about it in the same way? Are we thinking about it as a product, or a process, or innovativeness, or is it just a positive placeholder for what we want to see happen but aren't sure how to get there?

So thinking about that in my work in technology, I was on a task force at Seattle Pacific University. We have a very strong faculty governance at Seattle Pacific. And thinking about [it] from that perspective, a very out-of-the-box innovation definition, a very Clayton Christensen-like idea … wouldn't work for us. The idea was, what if we -- understanding our faculty affairs, our strong faculty governance -- grounded this thought about innovation not as something that happened from administration down but something that … was something that came up through a groundswell of support.

Q: So you've got this difficult-to-define phrase that is now embedded in this institute. So what work happens there day to day? The goal of the institute is what, given the complexity around the definition of innovation you just described?

A: We're all aware the struggles that higher education finds itself in, especially being a small, private, liberal arts institute type. A number of those boxes of trouble are checked. We're fortunate to be in a strong financial position … We have an opportunity where we are. So we're in Seattle, which is considered to be an innovation hub. So you have these places … Enrico Moretti saw as the next great centers of the world … San Jose, [Calif.], and Boulder, Colo., and Salt Lake City, and Boston … When you think about those in terms of population growth, it is oddly the innovation hubs that are seeing a population decrease or stagnation of minority populations. So when we think of innovation as this benevolent term we're using, it's going to solve the world's problems, who is it solving them for?

So that's a big innovation question. What does it look like in academics? I think often when it's a top-down innovation approach, who are we leaving out? Are we leaving out students? Well, we keep saying student first …

Our faculty are the ones getting left out. And when I talk to alumni relations and I talk to university advancement, when alumni come back, when students come here, they're not interested in understanding the metrics that are being used in Tableau to see if things have the proper return on investment. They're interested in knowing who the faculty are, and when they return, they're interested in seeing how the faculty are doing, who their favorite professors were.

So we think about innovation in that term. We think about it as a very human endeavor. And for us that means rooting it in what we do with faculty. So a lot of what I'm doing is coaching all the various constituencies of the university to understand: we have to change the way we do things. But that change is not going to happen unless everyone is on board.

Q: So … a lot of the conversation … about faculty is grounded in some ways on this assumption that faculty need to be brought along about innovation or are opposed to technology. So is what you're doing helping them innovate or persuading faculty that they … need to innovate in ways that matter to them?

A: … As administrators who work in educational technology, we all have that team of early adaptors that we work with, that are very happy to engage in technology. And I work with them, and we do absolutely wonderful things. But I'm always excited when those faculty who don't come into my office all that often have an idea on something or I run into them in the hallway. We get that conversation of, so, we have an Institute for Academic Innovation now. And almost always that faculty member will say, "Isn't education innovative by nature? Why do we need your office? Why do we need this space if my job is supposed to be innovative? That's what I do. As an instructor, I'm constantly adapting and evolving and thinking about the students. And you might think that method, the way that I give that information, is not moving in the right way. But I'm constantly thinking about the learning environments I'm working in."

So here's the word "innovation" that's being kind of top-down pushed on to you -- what does that mean? When someone hears, "you must innovate," does that mean you should push the class online? You must incorporate learning analytics or quantitative measures? Does that mean you need to be plugging into courseware? So we ask that question, “What are you hearing when you hear ‘innovate’? What are you doing when you say, ‘I’m innovative already. I just wasn't using that word’?”

So my job is to really be that cohesion, trying to put that together for the faculty member to support not just the new stuff, but what are the great things that have been happening that faculty are doing that just get forgotten, because the job of faculty member is to constantly be evolving, so often they're doing wonderful things that are flying under the radar …

Q: What are the possibilities of technology in the learning process that most excite you and most concern you? How do you work for the former and … question the latter?

A: It's really for me about creating those opportunities when learning can be transformative. My fear with online education, as we often see it, is [that] it's much more derivative, much more didactic. So I … struggle when we get so focused on meeting objectives that maybe push away the opportunities for learning to happen congruently, tangentially or further exploration. That's frustrating because the promises of online in the 1990s and 2000s was the opportunity for interesting points to take you into new places …

We have this great history of educational film that starts in the 1890s, and goes into Encyclopedia Britannica and Disney and all these different groups. And then in the 1980s, educational film just kind of goes away, and we replaced the film strips with faculty lecturing, which can be more convenient. But is that creating that same opportunity? So where are the places that we can connect people so that community can grow and foster and shine?

And then at the same time, we do have to think about how to scale that. A lot of the successful online learning environments I've seen are capped at 25 or 30 people. How do you create community when you're looking at 50, 100, 200 people? In many cases you're talking thousands. Some of the MOOCs that have seen success of that, it often seems in spite of the platform rather than because of. And I would rather focus on what are the successes -- they're usually geographic. How do we tap in to that to feed community?

So many MOOCs have seen students transcribe videos into different languages and create study groups and various things. The research on that is what's most exciting to me about online education. What happened there? And what can we do so we can try to perpetuate that? I wish we saw more of that from the developers.

Q: The larger question we're all wrestling with here: Do you believe that there will be very few institutions that will end up untouched by technology in the instructional process? … Is it inevitable that technology, of one kind or another, is going to be part of the learning process for pretty much every learner? And is that OK? Is it just about the intelligent use that actually furthers the learning objectives? Because you're obviously not antitechnology, but you are … a guardian about trying to make sure that it's used thoughtfully and not willy-nilly.

A: My academic career has been involved in technology-enhanced teaching and learning. My doctorate is in learning technology. I'm a huge advocate for it. I find more often than not that I'm the person pumping the brakes on conversations … The rate of how we're building technology moves very fast, but go into any vendor hall at a conference such as this, and it really is kind of the similar thing. So proctor software, content management services, textbooks -- I don't necessarily see those as innovative. That's what we've been doing now. Now we just moved it online.

Is all … education going to be touched by technology? I'd argue it already has been. Now, whether that looks like this utopian vision of techno-enhanced learning through computers, I'm not sure. It really needs to be environmentally based. So there are environments where this is exactly what we need to be doing. And my favorite research is the distance education research that's come out of places like Australia and Canada where, because of geographic … lack of proximity we had to be thinking about how we could connect people across thousands of miles.

Q: So much of the conversation … needs to be [around] what the intended audience is and what modes are [effective in reaching them]. What problem are we trying to solve for? And is there a group of students who … we particularly fail to reach through our old methods? Is it just too early for us to be in a sophisticated-enough level of conversation … [beyond] technology is good and bad, you know. Is it going to take time for us to get to the set of questions about good for whom? Or do you think we're getting to those?

A: I hope we're getting there. People are getting the cart in front of the horse. The realization that the traditional person who learns well on online education would have learned well anywhere. So I fear that we're going to continue to build, to serve, that model when our goal as educators is to make education inclusive for anyone who wants it. So I do see more of that conversation happening. So I think the thoughtful approach, the slower approach, in situating it environmentally as much as we can, is going to be vital of that … The important thing is we have that conversation and we let it be a conversation for a while and appreciate that and then we inform decision making.

Q: When I look at the history of higher ed, it is marked by slow change. And I don't think that's a bad thing … but do you believe that slow change is going to be fast enough in this era for most institutions to survive and thrive? Because I do sense … that the imperatives to change are probably accelerating … and yet I'm not sure we want it to speed up [the decision making] too much. How do you wrestle with that?

A: So I'm thinking about these faculty coming to me saying, “well, we're already innovators, why are we doing this?” Change is, you know, part of education. It doesn't maybe technologically happen as fast as we want. So what I see too much of is, change for change's sake or change because we need to be changing. So we start that change process without having things clearly defined.

If we think about our institutions as in constant evolution, whether it's Engeström's activity theory or iterative design or innovation, and we do that from all aspects of our institutions, then that change process will happen in a greater way.


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