What is Innovation?


In this post I reflect on the third ISTE Standards for Teachers. I use a four-step process. First, I pose a triggering question; second, I explore various resources and research the topic in an effort to answer my triggering question; third, I integrate suggestions from my DEL cohort; finally, I seek a resolution–at least an attempt. Feel free to leave feedback in the comment section or find me on Twitter.

ISTE Standards for Teachers 3: Model Digital Age Work and Learning

This is the third standard for teachers and discusses the need for teachers to provide an experience that models digital work and learning for students.


How can teachers exhibit knowledge, skills, and work processes representative of an innovative professional in a global and digital society?

Triggering Question

What is innovation in the higher educational technology field and what are the attributes of an innovative educational professional in a global and digital society?


Innovation and technology are two words that seem to be intrinsically linked. By default, technology is innovation because it builds upon the past and advances into the future with change. However, as present in ISTE Standards for Teachers 3, innovation can be permanently linked to the education world through technological advancement. In a quick web search one can find countless blog posts, articles, and stories of innovation at educational institutions exemplified by initiatives such as implementing 1:1 Chromebooks or iPads and so on. While these may be helpful examples of what innovation can look like, we should also step back and dig deeper into understanding how to be innovative in the education world. For example, how might an educator create an environment that encourages their students to be innovative with and without technology?

This week for ISTE 3 for teachers, I explore how educators can understand innovation on a level much deeper than simply relying on technology as the primary driver of innovation.

I found one very helpful article that approaches innovation from the affordance model created by Auke Pol in 2012. Smith et al., (2013) discuss the value of using and adapting the affordance model to guide innovation in the learning environment. Smith et al. argue for the importance of disconnecting the notion that technology and innovation must be intrinsically linked, “Great educators are natural innovators because they routinely look for inspirational ways to engage and reach their students. Unfortunately, innovation is often understood mainly in terms of technology – especially hardware” (p. 67). Innovation is about educators discovering and exploring new ways to teach students not necessarily about using the latest Chromebook app. Technology can be disruptive to the education process and innovative education, as the author suggests, is about understanding how the affordance model can produce an innovative classroom by critically evaluating and understanding what roles technology may or may not play.

There are four opportunities in the affordance model. First, the opportunity for manipulation, is the basic level of how technology might be used. In the case of a digital textbook, as Smith et al., uses as an example, this is as simple as pushing the button to change the digital page. Second, the opportunity for effect is what the manipulation of the technology does. For example, with a digital textbook the student can highlight, find keywords, and jump to various parts of the book with ease. Smith et al., describes this opportunity as “a cognitive response that includes thought and emotion” (p. 68). Third, is the opportunity for use where, in the digital textbook example, a teacher discovers how the the digital textbook can create a new pathway for learning because of the various capabilities the digital textbook affords. For example, digital textbooks might integrate videos (such as iBooks), quizzes, and other personalized learning tools. The teacher can implement the digital textbook is different ways than a paper textbook. Finally, the fourth is opportunity for action. Smith et al. writes, “This is the highest level of affordances with technology and the one that can serve educational technology policy most powerfully” (p. 68). The action opportunity can fundamentally change the learning process. For example, in a digital textbook, social features and text adjustments can happen to an old text. Students might be able to rewrite portions of the text into a modern language or even focus on the popular highlights that class makes. Smith et al. discusses this as the key of constructivist and relativist learning (p. 68). An example might be the recent exploration to create an adaptable Franken-Bible which is built on an ancient text and allows the reader to adapt the text based on a number of preferences or suggestions by pastors, biblical scholars, and language concerns.

Innovation, according to Smith et al., is about working through the affordance model to critically evaluate and discover how certain tools can disrupt the norm and provide new pathways for learning. However, it is also about learning when it makes sense not to move forward, “This includes not adopting. Affordances are not always advantageous” (p. 68).

Finally, Smith et al. provide practical suggestions to create an educational environment that implements the affordance model to promote innovative teaching that encourages the development of students who think innovatively.

First, make sure students know how to use the technology providing opportunities for “students [to] perceive the potential affordances” (p. 70). Teachers model the activity, which is exactly what ISTE Standard for Teachers 3 is promoting.

Second, students have their own unique learning styles and preferences using technologies. While some may prefer the printed text, others may prefer the quick search capabilities in a digital text. Allow students the space and time to explore the tools and also capture the tool preferences of students (both digital and analog) in a matrix to share with the class. This can also be a helpful collaborative activity in the classroom (p. 70).

Third, students have various levels of technical capabilities. Many students, however, may not have a strong grasp on technology. Create a role in the classroom for student peers to serve as “technical assistants” who are capable of teaching their classmates and even to the teacher how to use the tools (p. 70).

Fourth, the learning space may need to change based on how the technology is used. For example, when using mobile devices with a digital text students may sit in a circle. Teachers should think about how to promote conversation and discussion with each other. Another example is dimming the lights because mobile devices use backlit screens. This could be helpful when reading a text that takes place at night. Think about how the environment can be flexible because of the affordances of the particular technology used. Another example might be for a short poem that should be read on paper to reduce distractions or because the particular font, size, and placement of the text matters (p. 70).

Finally, PLAY!! Provide opportunity for you as the teacher to explore the technology and play with it. Encourage students to do the same. Often new things are learned when playing and exploring.

The key to innovation in the classroom is incorporating the best tool effectively in the learning environment to promote students learning. Smith et al. summarizes it well, “[G]reat educators are natural innovators because they routinely look for inspirational ways to engage and reach their students. This requires not just the knowledge of the technology and its affordances, or which medium works best, but how to incorporate it most effectively into the learning and teaching context.”


One question I have is how we might start to adjust the higher education learning environment to accommodate integrating an affordances model. Maybe, for example, there could be a few class sessions per quarter where students are encouraged to be innovative and the professor uses the affordances model to allow for a flexible learning experience.


My classmate, Annie Temonte, referred me to a couple helpful posts on innovation from the business perspective. One of the articles it discusses the need for education to focus on creating an environment where innovation fosters in such a way students learn the skills needed. In particular, providing space for failure and exploration. If our classrooms are not safe places for students to take risks, how will they learn the problem-solving skills needed for innovation. As noted by the article, failure is crucial to understanding innovation.

A characteristic that innovators and entrepreneurs share, Dintersmith noted, is their lack of fear, and their understanding of the importance of failure. “Success is key, but it’s quite possibly the case that you can’t succeed unless you understand failure and every aspect of it and you’re comfortable with it” (“Why Innovation Is Tough to Define – and Even Tougher to Cultivate,” 2013).

Furthermore, John Rogers, executive vice president at Goldman Sachs, calls on the education system to provide the learning environments that encourage students to explore and develop these skills. He says, “It’s critical that schools learn how to channel natural, innovative entrepreneurs into places where they can execute and create” (“Why Innovation Is Tough to Define – and Even Tougher to Cultivate,” 2013).


Innovation is not about technology. There is innovative technology to be sure, however, innovation is about moving beyond the simplistic or hot new tools, and thinking creatively to meet new and unfolding needs. Innovation is about using problem-solving skills to create something new out of something old; a reincarnated process, tool, product, or revolutionary idea. Innovation isn’t easy nor is it easy to foster an environment where innovation is produced. In the education setting we need to build a learning experience for students to practice problem-solving skills, explore concepts, understand the history of why something is the way it is, and, most importantly, encourage students to fail.

Edward Hess, a professor at Darden Graduate School of Business, summarizes the role of education in cultivating an innovative learning process well:

Innovation is the result of iterative learning processes as well as environments that encourage experimentation, critical inquiry, critical debate, and accept failures as a necessary part of the process. Yes, I said failures. Failure is a necessary part of the innovation process because from failure comes learning, iteration, adaptation, and the building of new conceptual and physical models through an iterative learning process. Almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures. (Hess, 2012).

Hess (2012) provides a helpful framework for how a classroom environment may promote an innovation producing experience for students; the key is experimentation. Experimentation promotes the idea that failure is expected and constant experimentation builds on the failures and the new knowledge learned from the particular failure. It isn’t about a perfect experience, rather, much like the current use of term sandboxes, students are welcomed into  a safe place to try new ideas, see the results, and test out all the variables. Failure is normal and required for sandbox-type work where experimentation only leads to new experimentation.

Innovation in the 21st century learning environment is about investing professors to understand how the affordances model may provide a framework when introducing new concepts, ideas, and digital technologies. The affordance model provides a framework for innovation. However, there must be a strong expectation for failure and experimentation where students are required to play in the sandbox–providing essential problem-solving skill building opportunities where students experience what innovation can look like.


Hess, E. (2012, June 20). Creating An Innovation Culture: Accepting Failure is Necessary. Retrieved May 10, 2015, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/darden/2012/06/20/creating-an-innovation-culture-accepting-failure-is-necessary/

Smith, D., Brand, J., & Kinash, S. (2013). Innovation in Education. Education Technology Solutions, 56, 66–70.

Olsen, T. (2014, March 6). Hacking the Bible. Retrieved May 3, 2015, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march/bible-in-original-geek.htm

Why Innovation Is Tough to Define — and Even Tougher to Cultivate. Knowledge@Wharton (2013, April 30). Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/why-innovation-is-tough-to-define-and-even-tougher-to-cultivate/

  3 comments for “What is Innovation?

  1. May 11, 2015 at 9:34 am

    This is great, Ryan. I think we’ve all been so quick to jump on the bandwagon because of the hype, but have we taken the steps to make our classrooms and schools a safe learning environment to BE innovative? Are we creating students that are willing to take risks and accept and adjust from failures? The technology shouldn’t play a role at all until those environments are established and students have the confidence to explore and understand the purpose of the change.

  2. May 12, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Interesting conversation Ryan! Your musings on experimentation and failure are exceptionally useful, and, again, I think you’re consideration of how this affects higher education is important. If innovation is expected from our students and society at large, then how do we provide opportunities for this in the classroom at all levels? I also appreciate your term “unfolding needs” as it is representative of the layered nature of problem solving that develops over time as new challenges emerge in our world.

  3. Marsha Scott
    May 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Very thoughtful post, Ryan. You made a great point, about educators needing to “build learning environments” for students to take risks and learn from their mistakes. Many of my students are afraid to “fail”. Students lose confidence in themselves and tend to give up easily when encountering difficult issues. As you mentioned, it’s important that students practice problem solving and exploring different concepts and that it is okay to “fail”, because that is how we learn. Thanks for sharing.

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