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'Innovation doesn't always lead to improvement'

Teachers must critically evaluate innovations, rather than accepting that new is the same as good, writes Tom Starkey

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Teachers must critically evaluate innovations, rather than accepting that new is the same as good, writes Tom Starkey

It’s my experience that innovation is seen as an inherent positive in FE. It’s one of those shiny words that pops up in mission statements and prospectuses, letting people know that this ain’t no fuddy-duddy, set-in-its-ways college; this is a college that’s not afraid of the new, the hip, the gleaming straight-out-of-the-box ideas and practices that will drive things to the future.

And that’s fine. But the pursuit of innovation isn’t always about diving headlong into a better tomorrow. The intention behind innovation, the reason for the new, is not always about the greater educational good and that can sometimes be overlooked in the dash for change; any change.

Delivery or facilitation?

Crusty old delivery? Make way for facilitation. Out with the mouldy old sage on the stage to make way for the vibrant guide on the side. After all, it’s better for the students to gain their own knowledge. Now, whether or not you prescribe to that way of thinking or not is really beside the point (personally, I believe there is definite merit in that approach given particular contexts) because, when it comes to the crunch, the intention in regards to the innovation is paramount. It could be about trying to do the best by the students, or it could be about something else. A focus on facilitation rather than delivery can very easily turn into a cost-saving exercise, as less import is placed on the skills, knowledge and accreditation of the lecturer. From there, it’s not a massive step to a justification for hiring unqualified staff to fulfil the same role as a qualified lecturer (at a knock-down price, obviously).

Online learning? A way to engage and reach students that may otherwise not be able to access the training they need, an approach that allows students to take ownership of their own learning and immerse themselves in the digital world that will no doubt become more prominent in the future. Or a scheme to fulfil certain obligations in regards to learning hours without having to organise class time and staff (and pay for them).

Beware of shonky practice

Am I being overly cynical? Perhaps. But, in all honesty, I’ve seen enough shonky practice introduced under the banner of innovation to be massively hesitant to embrace every next big thing as an automatic benefit.

There’s always room for improvement and innovation is sometimes a completely necessary catalyst for this, but it’s by no means a given. The pursuit of the new as an unerring positive can, in fact, mask things that are in no way beneficial to anyone in the FE sector and it’s up to us to critically evaluate innovations professionally rather than accept that new is the same as good. Sometimes that will be the case and sometimes it won’t. We have to make sure that we’re not blinded by the gleam and see innovation, and the intent behind it, for what it really is in each individual case.

An innovative approach to innovation, as it were.

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the north of England

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