Eduvation Blog

The Innovation Sandbox

This week, Ken Steele concludes his conversation with Paula Burns, President & CEO of Lethbridge College.  In part 1, Paula described 3 notable innovations at Lethbridge College, in competency-based learning, stackable modular credentials, and the use of VR technology. In part 2, she outlined 5 ways that institutions can prepare for evolving students and the labour market over the next decade. This week, we explore the question of how higher ed leaders can nurture a culture of innovation on campus. Academic environments tend to be cautious and risk-averse, and truly experimenting with programs or pedagogy usually requires curiosity, creativity, collaboration and genuine courage.

Paula admits academic innovation can be challenging, but also presents immense opportunity. Campus leaders need to walk a fine line, respecting tradition and preserving the strengths of the past, while reassuring people that it is also safe to try new things.

Paula uses the metaphor of a marathon: there will always be some pace-setters leading the pack, and others bringing up the rear. The campus leader’s job is “to make sure that everybody is at least in the race.” Paula puts a lot of her own energy into supporting those who are trying to innovate, and believes you need to hire a broad team of visionary leaders to provide direction to the whole college.

Ken points out that research on innovation emphasizes the importance of personal passion in successful innovation, but that there are many obstacles to empowering front-line staff to advance their own ideas. At Lethbridge College, Paula explains that their people development strategy is about finding people’s passions and skills, and unleashing them to benefit the institution. But she also admits that most colleges have far more policies than they really need, and they definitely can be obstacles to innovation.

Paula recommends the “sandbox” model: establish clear parameters, within which staff and faculty can feel free to “play” creatively and innovate. The clear guidelines help to reduce the fear that can accompany experiment. Only when someone needs to step “outside the box” do they need to have a discussion about it. When extreme risk aversion causes us to overly control any environment (a college campus or a schoolyard playground), we inadvertently stifle creativity.  Instead, we need to loosen up the rules, and provide a “loose play” structure in which staff and faculty can build and create.

10K will be returning to the question of campus innovation in many more episodes over the months ahead. To be sure you don’t miss them, subscribe today! 

Paula Burns served as Provost & VP Academic at NAIT for 5 years before joining Lethbridge College as President & CEO 5 years ago.  In addition to a decade of experience in senior administration, she holds a PhD in Education from Toronto’s OISE, and an executive MBA from Royal Roads University with a specialization in leadership.

Shot on location at Lethbridge College in May 2018, by campus videography staff – thank you again!  (Want to host a 10K Site Visit at your campus?)


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