8 ways to encourage innovation on campus

Set clear goals and dream big

When it comes to technological innovation, schools often struggle to move from early development to widespread adoption. 

To combat this problem, the University of Michigan's (U-M) Office of Academic Innovation opened a center dedicated to moving digital innovation from early development to actual infrastructure, called the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG). Within its first year, DIG provided new tools to 22,000 U-M students.

Chris Teplovs, DIG's lead developer, and James DeVaney, U-M's associate vice provost for academic innovation, suggest the following tips for institutions and innovators looking to follow DIG's lead:

1. Set clear goals and values

Teplovs and DeVaney suggest establishing guiding principles that will lead each new project. Without clearly established goals, innovation groups could waver in different directions, write the two experts. For example, DIG's goals include understanding users, which helps shape all of their initiatives.

Consider setting incentives for innovation

2. Dream big at the beginning

At DIG, unrealistic goals are encouraged—at least in the early stages.

"Worrying over questions about culture, data, and technology could easily constrain our thinking from the start," the authors write.

Teplovs and DeVaney suggest getting comfortable with ambiguity at the beginning of a project, and then worrying about what's practical later.

3. Recruit team members with diverse skillsets

Members of the DIG team have expertise in design, behavioral science, data science, software development, and innovation advocacy, among others. Without a wide array of talents and expertise, the authors argue that the team would not be able to fully support their innovation.

4.  Get students involved

DIG has a Student Fellowship, through which 20 students per year contribute to the team's software development, user experience design, graphic artistry, innovation advocacy, and data science. In exchange, the students receive mentorship from the full-time DIG employees.

"Our experiences with our students have helped us to validate and prioritize new capabilities needed to grow our model," write the authors.

Encourage faculty to mentor undergraduate research

5. Collaborate with your users on projects

Teplovs and DeVaney suggest engaging with the community that will ultimately use your innovations. "We build our tools with our community of users, not simply for them," say the authors. "This results in greater impact on campus."

Throughout the planning phase, DIG seeks feedback from campus using interviews and learning analytics techniques.

6. Plan for the end result

Once DIG projects are finalized, they often move to new managers, such as a different group on campus. Other projects shut down or narrow in scope.

Teplovs and DeVaney encourage campus innovators to consider the final state of their project and how they can ensure a smooth transition. 

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7. Be flexible

DIG regularly assesses whether projects are meeting their goals—and using all of their potential. The team creates opportunities to experiment with new ways to approach or apply each project. They also look for new needs on campus and consider whether existing projects can expand to help solve those problems.

8. Break down silos

"Much of the higher education sector draws a line between teaching and learning on one side and research on the other," write the authors. For successful innovation, Teplovs and DeVaney suggest doing what DIG does and "straddle these worlds with a more unifying focus on discovery" (DeVaney/Teplovs, EdSurge, 10/22).

Learn how other colleges and universities manage their innovation hubs

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