Sunday, March 3, 2019

Innovation is More Than an Idea or Tool

What makes something innovative? There is no shortage of debate on this topic in the least bit. From articles to blog posts to books, that subject has been covered in great detail. One can look at numerous companies and develop his or her conclusions.  Take Uber and Airbnb for example. Each in their own right came up with a new and different idea aligned to technology with the goal of creating something that consumers would embrace while making money in the process. Not only did both of these companies disrupt their respective industries, but both have evidence in the form of users and revenue to validate that their solutions were genuinely innovative. The convergence of an idea, tool and strategy have led to ultimate success for both Uber and Airbnb.

In education, there is always an affinity to jump on board the latest tool or idea and automatically stamp the word innovation on it. Now, this isn’t to say that everything in both of these categories is representative of a better means to accomplish a task or to improve professional practice.  The key is the criteria that are used to make such a determination or claim.  Let’s first begin by evaluating the efficacy of both using the following questions:

  • How are kids learning with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?
  • What observable evidence is there that an idea or strategy represents a fundamental improvement over what has been done traditionally in the past?

I, for one, don’t shy away from the fact that both research and evidence should be part of the conversation.  A mix of qualitative and quantitative measures goes a long way to validating whether or not something is actually innovative.  A push for efficacy benefits everyone who is championing better approaches to improve student learning and professional practice.  Whether to innovate or not should be driven by a challenge or problem that can be overcome in a way that leads to a better outcome.  Achievement can undoubtedly fall into one of these categories, but there is so much more to learning and kids than a score. When it comes to innovation, I see digital leadership and blended learning as two of many ideas, concepts, or strategies where there is research and evidence to support these innovative practices.  

Recently during a coaching visit at Sandshore Elementary School, a part of the Mt. Olive Township School District in NJ, I saw one of the best examples of innovation in practice.  As I was in a second-grade classroom, I saw an odd-looking contraption that I had never seen in a school before, but I also heard a voice coming from it. When I inquired as to what it was, Nicole Musarra, the principal, told me that it was a VGo robotic telepresence for a student who was unable to attend school for health reasons.  Below is a description of the device from the company:
For some students, attending school isn’t possible. 
Injuries, extended illnesses, immune deficiencies, and other physical challenges prevent a student from physically being able to attend school. School districts try to accommodate these special needs by working providing online courses, in-home tutors, special busing, video conferencing and more. But these are expensive and very limiting since students miss out on the classroom experience and social life that comes with attending school.  Now, they can participate in classroom discussions and share in the social aspects of locker-side chats, lunch period and moving from class to class.  VGo gets the student back to the traditional schooling environment by providing a physical device that replicates the student while away from school.  It is operated in real-time by the student (not the teacher or an aid), so they feel empowered with their independence.   VGo enables students to:
  • Receive the same instruction as their peers
  • Move around/between classrooms independently
  • Socialize with friends in the hallways and at lunch
  • Participate in a full school day with their classmates

It was purely amazing to see and hear this student be part of the class even though she wasn’t there physically. As the kids in class rotated from small group to stations so did the student who was at home. In addition to full participation during the lesson, the VGo device was able to move throughout the building so the student could go to gym, lunch, and move about the hallway with her peers. I learned that the kids in school would often dress up the robotic device to add a more humanistic element to it. The only limitation was that the VGo was limited in movement and functionality based on an available WiFi signal. This meant that the homebound student couldn’t go outside to recess. However, I suggested to the principal that hotspots be installed on the outside of the building to solve this challenge in the future. 

The VGo device is a prime example of what innovation really looks like in terms of how it improves what the student is to do.  Without the device, the learning experience, and more importantly the relationships it helps to create, would not be possible. The example above checks all the boxes when it comes to the two questions I posed earlier in the post as well as a fundamental improvement in terms of outcomes. Innovation should not be a buzz word nor something that is thrown around in an attempt to add credence to an idea or strategy.  In addition to the most commonly associated words “new” and “better,” a third term should always follow – RESULT. The key to scaling innovation, in my opinion, is not just to tell how we are, or that we should be, pursuing innovative methods, but actually show the impact in terms of improvements to learning outcomes and professional practice. 

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