Innovation Strategy profile: Academic Innovation Accelerator to cultivate new teaching concepts

Andrea Gibson
April 13, 2016

This article originally appeared on the Ohio University Office of Research Communications website. To view the story in its original form with pictures, click here.

Across the United States, colleges and universities have experimented with different ways to bring innovation to the classroom. At Ohio University, a cross-campus team led by Bradley Cohen is asking whether the type of system popularly used to help entrepreneurs launch start-up companies also could assist faculty members with cultivating novel methods for teaching and education.

The project, the Academic Innovation Accelerator, recently was allocated $924,000 in funding from Ohio University’s Innovation Strategy program, which supports creative, interdisciplinary approaches to issues in research, creative activity, teaching and institutional operations.

“Supporting this type of experimentation at an institution like this is critical to the long-term health of higher education in Ohio,” said Cohen, senior vice provost for instructional innovation. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore a way forward.”

Cohen noted that Robert Frank, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, originally pitched the idea of applying a business incubator concept to curricular innovation at an early meeting of campus partners interested in the Innovation Strategy program.

“A core activity at OHIO is, obviously, education, and so it makes sense that we should devote substantial resources to innovation in that part of our mission,” Frank said. “This has not been a priority in the past at most universities, but the rapid changes in cognitive and learning science coupled with huge new capabilities in communication and information accessibility have created fantastic opportunities for us to innovate with respect to our teaching practices. The accelerator will be a magnet for all sorts of institutional experimentation in the realm of pedagogy and other educational practices.”

After a series of discussions about the idea, the interdisciplinary team of faculty and administrators developed a novel process.

Ohio University educators can pitch academic innovation ideas to the accelerator’s advisory group, composed of faculty members Linda Rice and Laurie Hatch of the College of Arts and Sciences, Raymond Frost of the College of Business, Angela Hosek of the Scripps College of Communication, William Condee of the College of Fine Arts, Greg Kremer and Todd Myers of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, David Moore of the Patton College of Education, Derek Kauneckis of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, and Sally Marinellie of the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

“So many times as faculty we have ideas we’d like to try out, but too often those ideas never make it out of the garage because we anticipate roadblocks or the lack of resources necessary to move forward,” said Rice, a professor of English. “The accelerator, as its name implies, really is to provide an increased fluidity, to mitigate or remove some of the risks and barriers, to help ideas turn into actionable plans and real-world projects and experiments.”

This peer faculty group can help applicants shape their academic innovation concepts and determine if the accelerator is the best fit for the idea, or if another university program or an external funding source might be a better option, Cohen explained.

Proposals that the advisory group believes could affect Ohio University’s student education on a broad scale will be forwarded to a committee comprising the university deans as well as the vice provost for global affairs and chief information officer for review. This committee, called the “champions group,” will play a role similar to that of venture capitalists in a business accelerator by deciding which proposals might merit wide university financial investment and implementation, Cohen said.

Including administrative offices such as the registrar or information technology is important, as these entities play key roles in helping to implement academic processes, Cohen noted. The accelerator will engage these stakeholders early in the process, working collaboratively with them to execute new ideas.  

“Any idea that will be game-changing for higher education will pressure existing entities on campus,” Cohen said. “It will put pressure on policies, practices and the infrastructure.”

Examples of issues that academic innovation proposals might tackle include helping high-risk, first-generation college students navigate courses with high drop rates; assisting faculty with video conferencing or flipped classroom models to teach low-enrollment courses across multiple campuses; developing courses that focus on mobile technology; or using technology to offer students different types of global immersion experiences.

Cohen stressed that the accelerator is an experiment in academic innovation, a way to establish a potential process for the university to more quickly evaluate and implement new educational concepts. Higher education institutions can be conservative and cautious about innovation—and often for good reasons—but also realize that they must begin to explore new models, Cohen said.

“Let’s try this, but do it in a controlled way so that we don’t spend too much money or put the institution at too much risk. We will learn whether we can make this work,” he said about the philosophy behind the accelerator.

The accelerator offers a platform and process to remove obstacles to good ideas, Rice noted.

“One way I think of the accelerator is as a kind of ‘yes zone,’ so that when ideas come, we’re not immediately throwing up barriers that say, ‘this won’t work because of X, Y and Z,’” she said.

Ohio University’s Academic Innovation Accelerator differs from other approaches in higher education, Cohen noted. Some institutions establish centers for teaching and learning that can support small-scale services and funding for individual faculty ideas, but may not be able to scale them up. Others have sought major grant funding from entities such as the Gates Foundation to initiate ambitious, high-risk projects, though few universities have the resources to do this, he said. Elsewhere, institutions such as Georgetown University have set up separate entities to develop academic innovations. Some have been effective, while others have struggled to integrate their solutions into the institution, Cohen noted.

The Ohio University model focuses on fostering academic innovation in-house that can be broadly applied across the institution.

Cohen expects strong faculty demand for the service.

“I’ve found faculty who are very creative, dedicated instructors who are interested in finding the community that they don’t quite know is there,” he said.

Cohen also stressed that the Academic Innovation Accelerator has wide support from senior administrators and deans, who have a strong desire to confront higher education’s challenges.

Frank, who will serve on the champions group, anticipates that the accelerator will stimulate interesting conversations on campus about how educators can create a new campus environment of innovation.

“It is, in my opinion, essential that we create such an environment if we are to be successful in an increasingly competitive higher education future,” Frank said.

Like all experiments, the Academic Innovation Accelerator could uncover some novel ideas that may be very effective, but also will learn from its failures, Cohen said.

“If we don’t have any failures in the next three years, we will not have risked enough,” he said.

Rice also emphasized the importance of risking new ideas.

“Doing things the same way may be comfortable in higher education, but if we don’t keep looking outward, if we don’t keep innovating, we won’t likely be ready and able to pivot the way we need to in order to be responsive to the students and greater society we are here to serve,” she said.

The Academic Innovation Accelerator soon will hire a project director to help manage the process and will sponsor its first events to spark new ideas in early Fall Semester 2016.

“We anticipate hosting an ideation event where we want to share the vision of the accelerator and really help people to think big, think outside the box, think of new ways to approach what they are already doing and also dream up totally new ideas,” Rice said.