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Taking a creative approach to our future

Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 04 Jun, 2009
Published 04 Jun, 2009
Attendees at the recent IMS Learning Impact Conference 2009 held in Barcelona agreed that creativity and innovation in education were of critical importance in enabling us to adapt to the radical changes taking place in our environment.

The topic of this year’s conference , was Leveraging Web Applications and Enterprise Integration to Enable Innovation and Creativity in Teaching and Learning . Presenters and participants came from 25 countries and included senior managers and executives from suppliers, education providers and governmental organisations. It was very valuable, and perhaps unusual, to have this range of communities to share their perspectives.

There was a consensus among presenters and participants that we are in a time of impending great – and possibly paradigmatic – change, and that innovation and creativity, particularly in the context of education, was of critical importance to enable us to navigate this period - ‘it is only creativity and innovation that will get us out of this crisis’. People seemed to have bigger concerns on their minds than interoperability, however it was less clear that there was a real consensus on their analysis of the situation, and on the way forward.

This raised all sorts of interesting and sometimes profound questions, along with contrasting perspectives on the nature of innovation and how to nurture it, and the essential importance of creativity, yet the difficulty of defining and assessing it. How could the impact of learning technologies be understood and measured? What were some of the challenges for educational change, and leadership? Could standards be used to enable learning opportunities?

It was striking that, whilst IMS itself is about technical standards, and there was a core assumption across the conference about the central role played by technology and standards, the really pressing concerns were organisational, pedagogical and ideological.

Big questions and contradictions surround issues such how to design the right conditions for creativity within a culture of measurement and productivity, and the fact that creativity and innovation require risk, yet the systems in place often inhibit this. There were contrasts between a focus on productivity and effectiveness from a business and management point of view, and a far more personal consideration of the teacher and the learner, and also between geo-political positions, particularly the US and Europe but also Asia. What does the present interest and focus on Open Educational Resources mean for the business models of universities and ‘the learning industry’?

And for a technological conference ideas were expressed in sometimes quite idealistic terms -

  • We need to ‘bring together the education ecosystem’
  • ‘The medium is the message and the cloud is the content’
  • ‘Soa is an organisational mindset – a state of mind’
  • ‘We need a ‘Renaissance 2.0’, innovation and creativity will come from the convergence of interdisciplinary approaches – like first the first Renaissance’
  • ‘New inventions might not come from where you expect - what is the next big thing and how do we prepare for it?’

There was a real sense of urgency and an awareness of impending change at the conference. The relatively recent changes brought about by the internet, and the very recent global crisis within the last year, has made people aware of the speed at which change can happen and how unexpected the results can be.

So whilst there was complete agreement on the central importance of innovation and creativity, particularly in education, for humanity to make progress, and a belief in the core role technology can play in this process, we are not necessarily in close agreement about how we can best adapt to this changing environment.



More from the sessions -

For those who are interested there is a more detailed description of some of the presentations and discussions that took place below. This does not include some of the more focussed technical discussions that took place in ‘Program Track’ sessions–

Open educational resources (OER)

Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, discussed the UK vision which is for greater flexibility involving joined-up administration systems, changing architectures, a greater openness of resources, integrated information strategies and green computing. A major focus at the moment in the UK is on promoting a greater use of OER through a JISC-funded OER programme in the UK which is a pilot designed to explore the many issues this raises.

Service Oriented Architectures

A panel session considered the state of play of SOA in education and where the focus of development should be. The consensus was that whilst ‘early on it was a technical solution – now it is a business process problem’. One of the issues for education was finding out ‘where you are and what soa could mean for you’, and it was commented that ‘People don’t understand how their institution works, they are told to drive down costs and get a system – but this may not be what you want’. A fundamental issue to be addressed was that ‘requirements are requirements’.

The question was raised about what role IMS should be playing, and the theme of institutional readiness recurred throughout the conference.

Business and Vendor perspectives

Greg Butler, Education Audience Director from Microsoft, offered a vision of learning and working – but asked if we were really ‘ready for the power of ICT in education?’ We saw some great tools but he asked what they would actually mean in practice and how could their potential be exploited? Just making them available was not enough, he said. He explored the question of whether access to ICT actually improves performance which has been addressed by the OECD The Microsoft vision involved expanding ‘the power of personalised learning to all through ICT’, and the concept of ‘any time, anywhere, any device, with low complexity’.

Michael Chasen CEO of Blackboard, described how we are in a ‘period of exponential change’ and near a ‘tipping point’. People want openness, useability and flexibility, and they want to engage in social learning. He said that Blackboard is concerned with helping this happen and supporting the institution in its quest for viability. They also want to help institutions answer the question of how to use technology to maximise business. The challenge for IMS is ‘are we making the right decisions today?’

A view from education

Several strategic managers from Higher Education Institutions spoke at the conference.

The UK Open University has coped with very large numbers of students over many decades and Professor Denise Kirkpatrick, Pro Vice Chancellor, described how it has exploited technology from the beginning, originally using the public broadcasting TV network, through to their present extensive development and use of online and mobile technologies, and it has made all its materials openly available online. They have been ‘open’ from the beginning at all levels including ‘people, places, methods and ideas’. Again – they were asking ‘what are the critical challenges’ including what models might offer serious competition to them?

Llorenc Valverde, Vice President for Technology at the Open University of Catalunya described how they have recently created an environment that is interoperable and uses standards, and the philosophy that underpinned this development. He emphasised that the requirements they had identified for themselves underpinned their approach, and were the primary driver behind the design of the technology. These included a ‘lego-like’ platform which was accessible to all, the ability to generate all kinds of output formats, and the ability to support an affective and emotional dimension. It should be able to support lots of students at same time and be ‘flexible with the opportunity to innovate and explore’. They saw ‘Faculty as mentors and students as teachers’ and the vision was of a ‘drag and drop’ dashboard that people could personalise (widgets playing a part in this solution). Their approach to implementation and change was a progressive one and he felt that the ‘future of e-learning will be focussed on interoperability’.

European perspectives

Fabrizio Cardinali, ELIG Chair and Gunti Labs CEO offered the concept of ‘Renaissance 2.0’. There is a ‘need for a new wave of creative thinking and interdisciplinary convergence’ however this would be very hard and complex to achieve without standards. This was another recurring theme throughout the conference – innovation will not be enough without creativity, and creativity arose from the intersection of different disciplines. ‘New inventions might not come from where you expect’. So what is the next big thing and how do we prepare for it?

‘Our future depends on innovation’ was the message explored by Maruja Gutierrez-Diaz, the Head of Unit of Innovation and Creativity at the European Commission, who stressed the need for a broad-based innovation strategy for the EU. She reflected on how other countries and regions of the world are doing. ‘Without education as a core policy innovation will remain unsupported’, and ‘intelligent and extensive use of ICT is a core condition’.

There was an overall agreement across the conference that we are in a place now where ICT infrastructure is mature, accessible and affordable enough, and a critical mass of content and learning services is being reached to enable some of these debates to take place. This development highlighted the critical importance of standards for Lifelong Learning. However successfully embedding ICT in education requires further technical, organisational and pedagogical change.

There is a great deal of research and analysis happening through the establishment of the EU Creativity and Innovation European Year 2009 and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) - which is calling for proposals soon for funding in this area through a major programme. It is ‘only creativity and innovation that will get us out of this crisis’

Some contrasting discussions

Two panels looked at the issues from two ends of a spectrum, at one end the institution and its productivity, and at the other the personal experience of the learner and teacher.

The first panel explored the questions of productivity and effectiveness of education and considered how we could be exploiting the advantages offered by a crisis such as the one we are going through. Again there was agreement on the enormous forces of change we are experiencing and that ‘education has never been more important’. The changes taking place meant transformation at all levels from the roles of teacher and faculty, through to institutions and to business models. The question of productivity was a theme running through the session, we should ‘leverage strategic partnerships into major productivity change’. The question of competition for markets, new business models, and the impact of the ‘for profit’ universities, was contrasted with the vision of being the ‘Best for the world not best in the world’.

Another panel considered the issue of ‘Creativity and innovation in using technology to support learning’ and began by focusing on the individual experience and the role of the teacher, and what the concepts of innovation and creativity meant for education. This brought us back to basics, and offered a valuable grounding for some of the arguments made in other parts of the conference. We each remember a teacher who made things ‘come alive’ for us – but what we remember passes ‘underneath the radar of systems, structures and standards’ – so how was it possible to measure or scale this? The educator needed to create an environment that encourages one thing rather than another, and it’s very hard to find a tool that replicates what a teacher can do. So should we be looking at the role of the educator?

Context is also clearly important. We need to understand the situations and activities which favour creativity for teachers as well as learners. Having numbers of computers in place, employing standards, and using Learning Design, don’t necessarily make these things happen on their own, though they can act as catalysts. ‘More testing leads to less innovation and creativity’, so a fundamental conflict exists concerning assessment methods, measurement, and the need to encourage creativity.

So what are the situations and activities which favour creativity? Creativity and innovation require risk, yet the systems in place inhibit this, and teachers do not have time to explore technology. Universities themselves are the ‘least innovative thing on the planet’, and ‘won’t even allow submission of phds online’!

The education system is monolithic with only certain degrees of freedom and yet we’re being confronted by radical change. It was suggested we could approach this at three possible levels – - How can we do what we do better? - How can we do something a bit differently from the way we did before? Or - What now is the system given the changed circumstances?

The big challenge for IMS is how standards can be used to address these problems and to help organisations to be innovative and foster creativity? ‘We need to bring together ideas that are presently separate in our heads’ and develop a new approach and vision – which maybe an unexpected one – ‘perhaps we need a specification for the unexpected?’!

Learning Impact Programme Awards

There was an exhibition of 36 projects shortlisted through the Learning Impact Programme which is designed to recognize ‘the most impactful use of technology worldwide in support of learning’ and about finding out about ‘where we are now in the adoption cycle’.


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