Ten Common Myths about Educational Innovations

World of Work May 13, 2015

As we read articles or attend conferences about educational innovation, we find sayings loaded with assumptions which may have been circulating for years without being further examined. Let me start with my top ten list, as an instructional designer and educational technologist, and I hope this can sparkle some thoughts about similar myths you might have heard.

1.     “Pedagogy/Technology drives innovation.”  In the United States, there is often a “cart pulling the horse” versus “the horse pulling the cart” discussion when it comes to the driving force for educational innovation. Namely, is education driving an innovation?  Or is information technology driving innovation, disregarding or even at the cost of educational needs?  Such binary discussion creates unnecessary confrontations, turning stakeholders blind to the more complex dynamics of change. A need for innovation may arise from a technological breakthrough, a particular need in teaching, or both! The cultural divide between teachers and technologists comes from the lack of empathy, which results in poor communication of intentions. The solution is to build rapport with those working in other functions, which will overcome various differences in thinking or methodology.

2.     “Lectures are passé.” Yes if the lectures are too boring, challenging or irrelevant. This does not make lecture a four-lettered word. Good lectures abound. Students still appreciate the value of deep insights poured from “sages on the stage”.  Listening to smart people talk can be a tremendously enriching experience. Otherwise why do people listen to TED talks? As much as we want faculty to embrace innovative teaching practices such as flipped classes, we do not want any teacher to feel guilty of giving lectures. My university (Abilene Christian University) even started a series of lunch sessions called “My Best Lecture” in our center for teaching and learning, and these sessions proved to be popular.

3.     “Avoid talking heads.” Years ago, when I started my career as instructional designer, a guru in our field warned a roomful of participants strongly against using “talking heads” in any online videos. Talking heads are meant to put you to sleep, we were told. The truth of the matter is, like lectures, there are engaging talking heads and boring talking heads. Seeing how my kids watch the Scishow guys for hours fundamentally changed my attitude. Now there is also research that supports the use of “talking head” videos, especially talking heads together with screencasts.

4.    “Thinking trumps content.” Often innovators claim having the ability to shape higher-order thinking skills. The claim is rooted in Bloom’s Taxonomy, which, in its abuse and misuse, contributes to widespread contempt for “lower-order” domains of learning, such as knowledge and comprehension. It is as if educators can teach critical and creative thinking in a content-free zone, a position that pleases many students who already think they can google content. Without building a functional knowledge base, few can aspire for higher-order skills such as analysis and evaluation.   

5.    “Higher tech is better tech.” Few people say this out loud, but we hear so many covert variations of this belief. Educational innovation can be an imaginative combination of instructional message, method and medium with or without any shiny technology that has just emerged. Why is the use of Clicker systems necessarily better than the show of hands or index cards? Technology can be an enabler, but not always the game changer.  Innovative projects can also succeed when educators use low tech and high human touch. In addition, later comers (or “laggards” as we sometimes label them) may have additional advantage for getting the easier and more up-to-date applications with initial bugs already squashed.  

6.    “It’s all about strategy.” I also hear talks that seem to imply that if we line up the vision, mission and strategy ducks in a row, desirable outcomes will result. If things go wrong, we blame poor planning. Unfortunately, education is one of these fields where business school strategizing does not always work due to the need for intellectual freedom, personal autonomy and disciplinary differences. Being attentive to environmental factors is just as important, if not more, as projecting grand plans in the educational process.

7.    “Our faculty are not tech savvy.” Strange as it may sound, tech-savviness is not always productive. Tech-savvy people may have been trained by previous iterations of innovations, and become too comfortable in them to embrace newer things. In online teaching I often find that the more humble and less tech-savvy professors develop better courses as they are willing to listen to feedback (or actively seeking it), have greater empathy towards students, and ironically, have some advantages in technological adoption as they could learn from others’ mistakes.

8.     “Textbooks/videos/podcasts…have to be professionally done.” Online universities produce videos with commercial quality using fake students who do not have hair losses or puzzled looks. Not all instructional media have to be professionally produced to look like marketing materials. If constantly reused, reaching wide audiences, or targeting sales in app stores, then yes, by all means invest in producing these videos. However, as Dr. Kyle Dickson, Director of the Learning Studio of Abilene Christian University, often say in his media classes, “shelf life” vary for instructional videos. A short and quick videos produced with a smartphone can be equally effective to welcome students in current semesters. Students may appreciate the authenticity of videos by those who are second-rate media specialists but first-rate teachers.

9.    “There is no room for confusion.” It’s human nature to shun chaos and crave order. Yet learning can be messy and there is nothing wrong with it. Without creating confusion intentionally, educators should anticipate students to embrace certain messy, organic instructional activities in designing an innovative way to teach, especially when it involves the use of authentic tasks, which by their very nature are as messy as realities can be.  If you communicate this expectation to students when designing innovative instructional interventions, they will have proper preparation and do not feel overwhelmed.

10.  “Learning should be connected.” There is much talk about “connected learning”, that faculty should harness the potentials of the “connected” nature of today’s students who use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay connected. Educational rubrics for online teaching often try to reflect this reality and almost always include stipulation for building interaction among students. While there is value for such social connections, we should be cautious of biases towards those who learn best when left alone. As we seek “connection”, do not dismiss contemplative and autonomous learning. Introverts learn too in their introversive ways. 

I find people resent the fact that things happen too slowly in education. Yet we do not charge ahead without stopping once in a while to examine if there are issues with our assumptions, or assumptions in claims we hear from other universities. Don’t we promote “critical thinking” among students? Well, start with ourselves for a change. Educational innovation, like any innovation, goes like a car that has a gas pedal. But it is not always about being fast and furious. What if this car does not have a brake?