Ironic motivational poster showing penguin leaping into an Orca's mouth. The text reads Innovate, Take Risks, Be A Success

Trust, Innovation, and Risk 2022

Written by Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos

If innovation is defined as trying something unusual or new, change can be simply trying something different.

Lanclos & Phipps (2019)

Donna Lanclos and I carried out research in 2017-2018 around the experience of teaching staff in a range of UK universities. We interviewed staff around the UK about what they taught, how they taught and what their motivations for teaching were. We looked at how and why they innovate in their practice. We found that participants were keenly aware of the risks involved if they failed to innovate, to try and succeed with new things (and discard the things that did not work).

One English literature professor stated that inclusive teaching and teaching that doesn’t change are mutually exclusive: “You and your practices have to be malleable.” Being transparent with students and talking to them about why they are doing what they are doing, is an important way to deal with and manage student anxiety (and a sense of risk) about the impact of unfamiliar approaches. Transparency was not only a way of building trust such that students could be more engaged and successful, but also a primary strategy for helping to manage the risks that academic staff felt they were undertaking in trying new or different things in their classrooms and other teaching contexts.

Then we had (and still have) a pandemic.

Trying new things, changing practices, and feeling anxious (both staff and students) were and are commonplace.

This week 1st November 2022 we saw student reactions to changes.

A headlibne from the UK Newspaper, the Evening Standard" that reads "Students launch mass lawsuit against UK universities that charged full fees during Covid lockdowns and strikes".

We know that education still happened during the pandemic, and we know that there was a lot of good practice. I believe that much of the substance of this lawsuit is about the loss of experience and connection. And I empathize with that loss, we all lost something during the last few years. Some of the rhetoric around these lawsuits is the conflation of the loss of connection, the resentment of how we had to work at a distance, and the emergent practices around the use of, for example, lecture recordings. Added to this, is the problem of fees, where students feel that they are paying for certain activities and experiences. 

There is a relationship that universities must explore between change, innovation, and risk. In our research, some individuals did not feel that they had institutional support to try different things, and if they did try new things, they tried not to draw attention to the things they did, for fear that they would be told to stop, or that what they were doing was wrong.

Additionally, student expectations can have a dampening effect on whether teaching staff try new approaches. The staff we interviewed recognized that they have to confront the occasionally quite conservative ways that students frame what teaching and learning look like before they can safely try unconventional approaches. They are also aware that more innovative and unconventional approaches do not always correlate to simple measures of “satisfaction” in course evaluations.

Teachers pointed to the importance of explaining why they were doing what they were doing across their practices, as a way of managing risk to themselves as well. These educators wanted to make sure that students could see the rationale behind lecturing in a particular way, or group work, or the structure of any educational experience, so that they (students and teachers alike) could be more successful.

This kind of transparency is a component part of building and maintaining trust (which is thin on the ground these days); those who saw themselves as facilitating trusting relationships with their students did this in part via pedagogical transparency, through repeatedly talking about why they were teaching in a particular way, in a particular place, or using a specific piece of tech, system, or social media platform.

Their measure of success, and management of risk, was much more about process than content. An applied ecology professor said, “undergraduate success is about breadth, flexibility, and being able to create depth where they want, and making sure they can develop that [ability to go deep where they want to]”

Our research participants were aware of some of the barriers that put themselves, their teaching practices, and their students at risk. The final question of each interview was “what else do we need to know about?” and the (largely unfulfilled) desire to have the time and space to discuss teaching came up repeatedly. A religious studies lecturer, who is also his institution’s head of academic development, said he didn’t think there was enough time spent talking about Teaching and Learning, and when there were such conversations, they didn’t “have institutional weight,” because not enough people (and in particular not enough senior people) were participating. A lecturer in forensics pointed out that undergraduate teaching is time-intensive in part because there is a lot that undergraduate students are trying to figure out, and there’s a lot more support needed from lecturers.

This research was all carried out before the pandemic, then the pandemic turned a lot of our practice on its head, it put the system under immense pressure, and some of the things that we talked about in our research findings became difficult at scale (such as taking time to explain the processes to students).

There is a worry now, that with the threat of lawsuits and litigation against universities that do innovative and different things in their teaching, students will push back, they will say “this is not what I am paying for!” There is a real chance in this moment that the trauma of the pandemic will push people into more risk-averse teaching (and learning) practices. There is a real need for people across the sector to identify ways to maintain and even increase the resources necessary to keep space for innovation and change. 

The full original paper can be found in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning

Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning4(1), 68–85.

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