Innovate: French innover, from Old French, from Latin innovāre, innovāt-, to renew : in-, intensive pref.; in- + novāre, to make new (from novus, new). ~ adapted from OED online
I have a confession: I am afraid of the Internet. When I think about innovation in terms of my own pedagogical skill, I immediately think about the Internet, and I get scared all over again. It makes sense though: the first thing I ever heard in regard to online interactivity was that some evil hacker could steal my identity, my money, or my youthful innocence. When I began work toward my PhD in rhetoric and composition a little over two years ago, if someone had told me then that I would become interested in technology, I would have snorted in disbelief. I could never have predicted how much I would grow to value my own fears, or change the tools associated with my teaching despite my fears. Regardless of what you may read here, I still harbor anxieties every time I pick up a new Internet skill. The nerves will likely never leave me, but now I embrace them as I puzzle through concepts like surveillance, privacy, and even the meaning of ‘innovation’ in my own theoretical work.
Learning even just a little bit about tech tools, from apps to programs, to social medias, has opened up more doors for me than I could ever have imagined. I have changed my entire rhetoric and composition focus, and I am now a go-to person for tool use at my current school. The funny part is this: I don’t feel like I know all that much more about online technologies. The difference is that I stopped saying ‘no’ to learning about emerging media and how it could enhance my own teaching, and started saying, “well… let’s learn a little bit about media here and there.”
My first teaching gig began years before at what I’ll call ‘Large Southwestern University,’ where we teach one four-credit hour beginning composition course, which lasts only one semester. We see our students four days a week, and one of those days is a required computer lab day. When I first started teaching, we had almost no instruction on how to teach in a lab environment. In the beginning, I had no clue what to do with these lab days, except ask my students to present their work, and create a digital handout for other students to follow along. Or I might use the lab for peer review to save paper. I wasn’t alone in my inability to figure out what the lab was for. Other instructors traded their lab days so they didn’t have to deal with students looking at their Facebook during class. Over the years I was teaching at this university, we began to instruct Graduate Teaching Assistants on how to use the lab, which helped, but not much. We simply did not have the infrastructure to support the potential for innovation available in the computer lab.
When I arrived as a new PhD student at my current school, I was just as lost as any first year student discovering all a new field has to offer. The graduate student teaching load was different, and we didn’t have those pesky labs to deal with. And then someone introduced me to Dropbox. I was terrified. I was sure that all sorts of malicious fiends would hack my Dropbox and steal my identity, running away with my virtual files in the virtual night. I was not about to save my information so someone could steal it or spy on me. My lack of knowledge created a fantasy wherein the cloud became a monitoring system that could destroy my whole life, much like in 1995 movie The Net. I did a little asking around (colleagues are a great source of knowledge) and realized that the benefits drastically outweigh any potential criminal drawbacks. Almost everyone I know has lost content, but I only know one person who knows someone who has had their identity stolen. By the end of my first semester, I realized the value of having at least my school work up on the cloud. My first semester in a new grad program, my thumb drive literally fell apart in my purse and I lost all my back-up files. The very next semester, my computer crashed and took everything with it. I hadn’t yet replaced that thumb drive. Before I panicked, I looked online and it was all there.
After discovering the cloud, I felt unstoppable. What else did the Internet have to offer me that could save me time, energy, and help me explore new learning options? And more, who could I share all my new-found knowledge with? I had been exactly the student that Michelle Kassorla describes in “How Shadowing my 2nd-grader Led to to a New View of Tech in the Classroom“: I knew how to entertain myself with tech, but had no idea “how to use technology to improve learning.” But that was all about to change. I wanted to be the teacher and the student that could grab the tech by the pixels. But where to start? My tactic (my anxieties about the Internet cause me to use warlike terms to talk about my experiences) is to adopt one new tool at a time. I approach each new software, social media, or platform with caution, making sure to learn about its features before I ever begin thinking how it could be a tool in my teaching. I am not afraid to abandon ship when I determine a piece of media is not for me. I have since begun to approach new media tools as something to play with, rather than something to poke with a stick from a distance in fear. The payoff is that after three years of experimenting with new media, I am now able to help a colleague find the right tool to incorporate into a concept they are trying to teach using their own style. I’m even happy to jump onto a tool and create a pretend scenario to help us both belay our collective anxieties about the tool.
It seems that everyone is talking about innovation right now. Even the news-parody site The Onion is making fun of ‘innovation’ during South by Southwest EDU. Ann Kirschner starts her article, “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!” with a very similar sentiment of overuse. Kirschner addresses everything from transformation of teaching to the pace of tuition spikes. She doesn’t however, address what innovation actually is. And it’s the same in an article on innovation in Forbes by David Burkus. While I love Burkus’s ideas — innovation not only needs outsiders, it needs a lot of different voices from all the directions — I am still lost as to the purpose of all this innovation talk: what is the goal? Is the goal to change the system? Is the goal to try something new? Is the goal, as the root of ‘innovation’ expresses, “to renew” the system?
I contend that innovation is a personal journey. In her book, Now You See It, Cathy Davidson addresses the importance of pedagogues to understand that our current educational system is stuck in the industrial past. We are teaching our students to adhere to punctuality and sameness, and to do it sitting in neat rows. We need to innovate — to renew the system. But how? And to what end? These are questions each of us must answer for ourselves. We have the opportunity to guide our students to their own conclusions — to encourage them to question the materiality of their own schooling. We have the opportunity to encourage them to think about Internet applications as more than just ways to get more followers, retweets, reblogs, or re-pins. My passion in teaching — in innovating — is to change the attitudes of our students, not directly target our administrators. Administrators (even the most well-meaning of them) are at the mercy of the system. But if we affect our students with the power to change, before they get stuck in the mire of administrative bureaucracy, we have a better chance to create change. If we move even one student away from the pursuit of the perfect grade point average to the pursuit of lifelong learning, despite our current reward-system, we have done something innovative.
Start your personal journey with something you’re curious about. Innovation can only happen successfully at your comfort level, at your pace, and within your interest areas. Trying out a tool on your students ‘because someone said I should use more tech’ is not the ideal way to begin. Innovation can even be a new class reading, or a new style of discussion. It could be rearranging the desks in your room, or asking your students to write on their phones for a day — a familiar environment many of them already compose in. Only you can decide how you will innovate. Matthew J. Kruger-Ross observes, “It seems to me that so-called innovations attributed to technology in teaching and learning are mostly pedagogical strategies cloaked in digital media.” I do not intend to contribute to this cloaking by attempting to give specific innovation advice. Not all innovation involves the digital. I cannot give any specific advice in this article on ‘how’ to innovate, just like I cannot give specific advice on how to learn. It’s a different experience for each of us.
As an example of non-digital innovation, I offer teacher-student transparency. Transparency may not seem like an innovation, but for many transparency can be a couple large steps out of the comfort zone. If I had a bullhorn and was only allowed to shout about one thing for the rest of my career, it would be this: Be transparent with your students. Tell them what most teachers never tell them about institutional shortcomings. Tell them about the mire of administrative bureaucracy. Tell them about articles you read that you think may be over their heads — you may be surprised about the outcomes. Tell them that the system is broken. Get them to brainstorm future possibilities while you tell them how much you don’t know — how many of the answers you don’t have.
Think of failure as an innovation. In his article, “In Defense of the ‘F’ Word in K-16 Education,” J. Martin Rochester makes the claim that we should not be afraid to fail students that need to be failed. In a system of grade inflation and an obsession with ‘fairness’ (whatever that means), I couldn’t agree more. Let them see us as vulnerable mammals. Let us admit that we fear seemingly silly things — like writing that first line of a paper, or even the Internet. They need to be nudged away from the idea that all ‘good’ writers can pump out a polished piece of writing on the first try, right? Instead of waiting for my students to begin their papers with over generalized statements that don’t really fit with the argument, I let my students know that introductions are my weakness and tell them how I work around my own tendency to overgeneralize my opener. I even let my students know about my pedagogical weaknesses. Why not try new ideas, and use new tools with your students with the idea that this might fail? Why not tell your students it might fail? One of my perceived pedagogical weaknesses is that I don’t always know what’s going to happen when I attempt to ‘innovate.’ I suspect some readers are tugging at their collars uncomfortably. I am often guilty of boldness in my failure, as well as a strong need to adhere to traditional methods. But Adam Heidebrink is right in his recent article “Cracking Open the Curriculum” when he states, “In the deepest recesses of academia, we find ourselves still heavily influenced by the pervading capitalist culture informing our learning communities.” Where Heidebrink invites us to crack open that curriculum and see what’s inside, I invite us to crack open ourselves and see what we can do to take a step forward in our personal journeys toward innovation.
Innovation doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t have to change pedagogy in a day. It doesn’t even have to be new for the instructor in the next office (or for many of us, the instructors that share our one tiny desk). It doesn’t have to be digital. It doesn’t have to be a parade of failures. It doesn’t even have to be revealing at all. If it feels scary, it might just be a meaningful step in your own innovative journey. I argue that “no” is not at the root of the word ‘innovation’; the root is ‘new.’ Saying “yes” where you’ve previously said “no” is perhaps the biggest innovation of all.