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Innovation at the Intersection of Technology and Teaching

From its beginnings as a small community college, Boise State University is now a doctoral research university recognized for...

college students working on laptops and tablets

From its beginnings as a small community college, Boise State University is now a doctoral research university recognized for rising enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. Director of Learning Technology Solutions Leif Nelson shares models of innovation, practical experience with managing change, and thoughts about where innovative teaching and technology will converge in higher education.


Considering how tough it is, why do we innovate? Author Simon Sinek’s popular Ted Talk would have us start with this question. Instead, let’s look at this backwards at the ‘what’ of innovation, and how it affects us as educators in higher education.

The ‘what’ of innovation

From the Latin innovare meaning “to renew or change,” the word innovation was a pejorative term for political dissidents. During the industrial revolution it was reborn in a positive light, as a new or different idea or improvement.

In the 19th century archaeologist Antwon Quincy declared invention better than innovation, since it involves creating something entirely new, whereas innovation only improves upon something else. Other economists of the time disagreed, since many inventions don’t end up being that valuable. In the mid-20th century, people started seeing innovation as progressive (instead of subversive).

Google Ngram graph showing how the word has changed in usage over time
This Google Ngram Viewer graph shows the change in popularity of the terms ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’ from 1908 to 2008.

The ‘how’ of innovation

So how does innovation catch on? From his research on how farmers try new ways of planting and harvesting, sociologist Everett Rogers noticed patterns in rates of adoption from early adopters to laggards. A few decades later, Geoffrey Moore proposed that adoption has more to do with sales and marketing than other factors. There is some common ground between these two theories and the attributes that make innovation successful. Both emphasize experimentation and the human aspect of change. What do people want? How will they benefit? This focus on the people-side of adoption is similar to the technology acceptance model.

The technology acceptance model theorizes which new tech innovations catch on.
The technology acceptance model (Davis, 1989) theorizes what leads people to accept new tech.

Why do people adopt new innovations? According to Rogers and sociologists Dimaggaio and Powell, the decision is either made by choice, collectively (because everyone else is doing it), or because an authority makes them.

Another good way to think of this is the level of freedom that people have. The highest level of freedom is that people choose based on evidence. The second level has a moderate amount of freedom. It’s similar to doing ‘the wave’ at a football stadium – everyone else is doing it, you might as well! The least amount of individual or collective decision-making is that someone in power says you must change.

Types of innovation

Innovation as plotted by the famous S-curveIn 1903, sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s s-curve model gave us an idea how new technologies can disrupt incumbent products. In the late sixties marketer Thomas Robertson came up with the concept of continuous versus discontinuous innovation. Next, American scholar Clayton M. Christensen brought us disruptive innovation – innovation that is revolutionary enough to create a new market and disrupt old ways of doing things.

Innovation is still in style

While true in theory, we struggle to change. So how do we get past that? We need to know what the change is, and why we’re making the effort. Even then, change is best in small doses – constant change or change that is too drastic can be a tough sell.

Virginia Satir’s change management model and the well-known Gartner Group hype cycle show us that change comes with reconciliation. Although at first we’re excited about new things, there’s usually a process of acceptance where motivation drops, called the trough of disillusionment.

Innovation in terms of Virginia Satir’s change management model and the well-known Gartner Group hype cycle

The famous SAMR model labels levels of change from substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition. You can see how some technologies might feel more ‘sustaining’ (continue existing practices) while others are more disruptive.

Innovation SAMR model
SAMR model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura www.hippasus.com.

Innovation in practice

The pace of adapting to change will be varied for different people, organizations, and depends on what the change is. Let’s look at a few practical examples of innovation acceptance in a real-world setting.

Lecture capture as disruptive innovation

Have you wondered if lecture capture is passé? Or if it’s actually enabling outdated instruction? Let’s not throw traditional lecture capture under the bus. There is lot of value in good (even lengthy) lectures. That’s where innovative behavior comes in. Flexible software-based video platforms let faculty greatly enhance how they use this technology, and offer new ways of teaching. At Boise State University, we replaced all of our lecture capture and video conferencing hardware appliances with purely software-based solutions.

Before the change, lectures were automatically recorded with rigid start-stop times and sharing content was complicated. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the true issue. Somewhat non-intuitively, the problem was too little friction for faculty. Since recordings were automated, faculty almost took lecture capture for granted; it was an afterthought. And views of these (very expensive) videos were very low. No one was watching them.

Now that Boise State has implemented the software-based educational video platform TechSmith Relay, recording requires just enough action so instructors are more thoughtful about what they’re capturing. There are benefits for instructors as well students and those who provide support.

Attributes of disruptive innovation as manifested in TechSmith Relay

We found that while classroom use didn’t grow to the levels we expected, more instructors began recording shorter videos, in their own offices (instead of class-length lectures), which is the ideal way for faculty to create video lessons. Another innovative behavior was that it became easy for instructors to assign video creation to students. Soon, a lot more students began creating their own videos, including projects and group work.

Lecture capture mapped to the SAMR model

In this model, the substitution level is basic lecture capture – trying to replicate the in-class experience by simply recording a lecture faculty would give otherwise.

Innovative SAMR steps and use cases

Innovative behavior comes in when instructors now can enhance lectures with short quizzes and other interactive features. If students don’t understand a “muddy” concept, savvy instructors can take notice when students struggle with quizzes and stop watching videos or participating. Then, they can make shorter, focused videos around that topic. If students aren’t watching the entire video, instructors might add resources in the LMS, or try flipped learning.

To be truly transformative, professors can let students take hold of learning by creating video content themselves, individually or in groups. The change in mindset started by just introducing this new technology to faculty and getting it into their hands.

When old becomes new – student response systems
Sometimes innovation comes not from technology itself, but in how we use it. Years-old tech we think may have already been played out can give us new opportunities.

Are student response systems innovations? They’re not new, but let’s look again at what is possible with these systems. Clickers (hand-held electronic input devices) are commonly used at the substitution level of innovation. They’re a replacement for students to raise their hands, and for faculty to take attendance.

Clickers get interesting when instructors go one step further and proactively use student response analytics. They can see how students are learning and make adjustments in their curriculum, delivery, or do active learning (such as think-pair-share) using the clickers and apps. The clickers also let us challenge the common in-class ‘no device’ policy. After seeing positive results from their peers with the mobile app, many professors adopted the clickers and adjusted or got rid of their digital device policies.

Innovation as shown in clicker adoption

The innovation of Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources (OER) is digital content available for widespread sharing, redistribution and, in some cases, alteration. The concept of ‘open’ educational content is innovative itself. It’s disruptive to the status quo (textbooks) by providing quality, inexpensive resources that supersede copyright. They’re free from a cost perspective and also comparable to free speech, in that they shouldn’t be restricted or withheld from people. OER opens up all kinds of new opportunities for teaching and learning.

Innovation qualities of OER

While there’s something to be said about a quality, hard-copy textbook, research shows there’s no difference in student performance between courses that use textbooks verses OER. The challenge with OER is to replicate the level of rigor that goes into publishing those textbooks.

With OER, most instructors start at the substitution level by replacing traditional textbooks with a digital format. Professors quickly see the benefits and move to the next level of innovation – they create their own repositories of content, à la carte. At the next level, they take advantage of analytics that show where students are struggling, so they can adjust their teaching. A transformative model has students create content themselves.

Innovation SAMR and OER

Let’s move on to the ‘why’

Why should we innovate in higher education? Is it to break from tradition? Is it to produce more employable graduates in a tech-savvy world? Or do we simply want to increase efficiencies?

As administrators, we know that faster and cheaper isn’t always better. As educational philosopher Gert Biesta asks, what is good education in an age where we preoccupied by measurement and what he calls ‘learnification’ (i.e. a preoccupation with efficient, individualized forms of learning as opposed to thinking about education as a social enterprise for the public good)?

In 2010 Dr. Penny Pasque developed a framework posing that higher education should contribute to the public good – reducing crime, increasing community engagement, improve tech usage, diversity, and similar goals. If this is the mission of higher education, we want to live those values as part of the change-management process.

Ven diagram with process on the left, purpose on the right, and innovation in the middle intersection.
Innovation for the public good lives at the intersection of process and purpose.

Trialability – Let faculty try things out for themselves, experiment, and get used to things during a change.

Compatibility with existing beliefs – Understand the values and beliefs different groups hold dear before you introduce new things.

Collective decision-making – Aim for majority opinion (if not consensus) before charging onward with significant change.

Utility – What is the perceived and actual usefulness? Will people view this as ‘change for change’s sake’?

To innovate is human

Regardless of the innovation model you prefer, new technology is the easy part. The human response to change is the most important aspect when implementing any innovation. Looking at the big picture of the ‘why’ of innovation helps clarify our foundational mission and the reason we strive so eagerly to find new concepts, technologies, and processes.


This post is compiled from a live EDUCAUSE Industry and Campus webinar “Innovation at the Intersection of Technology and Teaching”, September 11, 2018.

Dayna Amboy

Marketing Content Strategist at TechSmith. I love photography, web design, and baby giraffes, not in that order.

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