For the Edtech Innovation Today’s Learners Need, Look Not to Companies, But to Campuses

Oct 28, 2019

On the tails of Educause, with its Startup Alley and all the announcements of what’s new and hot in edtech, it leaves me wondering: Are we missing the innovation happening in our own backyards? When we focus our attention with laser precision on the edupreneurs who start new companies as the primary source of change, what do we miss?

I’m here to argue that we miss the “intrapreneurs”—those people with an entrepreneurial spirit who are leading change from within existing organizations. The builders, makers, dreamers and doers who see opportunity to effect change for learners from within the walls, virtual or physical, of their classrooms, of their libraries, of their administrative offices. They may carry titles like chief innovation officer or director of academic innovation, but just as often, they are teaching faculty, librarians, classroom support specialists. They use an entrepreneurial mindset to break the chains of “we’ve always done it that way” and create changes in their sphere of influence that better serve modern learners.

Much like slide projectors once replaced chalk as top-of-the-line educational tools, today’s intrapreneurs aim to shift our dependence on legacy technologies such as the standard LMS. They are hacking in the backrooms of IT buildings, making interfaces that allow learners to move in and out of technologies seamlessly, in a unified experience. They are informed by #a11y (accessibility design) and #UX (user experience design) and the near-ubiquitous social media that penetrates across all sectors.

Higher education was not built for these people, for those who want to find a better way to help learners earn marketable credentials and foster an affinity for lifelong learning. It was built to be the next step in the factory model, where the future leaders of companies, countries and the academy itself came to be indoctrinated to its cultural norms. It was built to support the finishing of the elite, and on occasion elevate those exceptionally educationally talented who were not of the privileged class.

The shift away from higher education as harbor to elite youth to a more egalitarian operation started in the mid-1940s when our troops returned from World War II and began to take advantage of their G.I. Bill education benefits. Without enough jobs for the returning troops, the G.I. Bill was introduced to provide a safe and productive return to society. It meant for the first time even those from working class backgrounds had access to higher education en masse (although in practice, it left out many African American veterans). In my study of higher education, this is where the shell began to crack and the new higher education began to emerge.

Intrapreneurs were around then. They expanded the theoretical foundation on which much curricula was built to include practical application by building labs, conducting experiments and exposing learners to new ways of thinking, not just regurgitation of facts.

While modern intrapreneurs are making vastly different changes—even including such practices as work-to-learn, where learners solve disciplinary problems and earn credit for it—they are building off the changes made to accommodate our WWII veterans several generations ago. The innovations that faculty, librarians and course designers are creating now help deliver education to today’s learners, who may be working adults, the first in their families to attend college or parents balancing their own education goals with those of their children. That’s why I call them “learners,” not “students”: to broaden our imaginations beyond 18- to 22-year-olds, who aren’t the majority anymore.

Intrapreneurs are toiling away in every corner of campus, from the front of the classroom to the depths of the stacks. They are flipping classrooms and entire curricula. They are writing open educational resources to help learners cut down on life-crushing debt. They are linking together tools like Zoom and Padlet to allow learners to collaborate in real time across distance like so many of them do in their professional lives. They are building competency-based education programs, prior learning assessments and stackable microcredentials to recognize learner’s mastery of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) regardless of where the learning occurs.

Intrapreneurs are filling a gap by working in those “in-between” spaces—in between policies, around the fringes of the norm. They are taking large lecture classes and filling the hall with interactivity as learners collaborate to solve problems, having already watched the lecture and read the material at home. They are building adaptive math programs that allow learners to remediate at their moment of need, not as a whole separate course, which sets their time to credential completion back, sometimes indefinitely.

Much like with the entrepreneurs who build companies, these intrapreneurs see a need and find a way to solve for it. Conversely, sometimes they stumble into an answer, in another discipline or in their daily lives, and recognize its potential to support learner success.

Also like household-name entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs don’t always have success overnight, even if the media portrays it that way. Our faculty and staff may pilot and pitch many times before winning approval to take an innovative practice to scale.

Intrapreneurs may face skepticism from colleagues and leadership alike because their changes disrupt the status quo. Cultural resistance to change is strong across many sectors of higher education. Intrapreneurs may face budget restrictions and limitations on the changes they can make to policy, practice and enterprise technology.

Take a look around your campus. Who are your intrapreneurs and what can you do to support them in their quest for learner success?


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