How to find and support your most innovative instructors

The challenge: Identifying innovators among the faculty

For any institution intent on improving student outcomes through innovative classroom practices, the necessary first step is to identify and support innovative instructors. In addition to creating a culture conducive to instructional experiments, identifying innovators allows academic leaders to make informed decisions about which techniques to scale across the institution. It also can bring a more strategic approach to investment in classroom infrastructure and support services.

First, academic leaders must surface innovative faculty to build a broad and diverse roster of innovators on campus. But how? Our research identified three successful tactics:

1. Eliminate administrative barriers to accessing seed funding. Institutions typically require long, complex applications for funding pedagogical experiments. Instead, simplify the application to just three or four fields, including a short description of the experiment. This will incentivize more faculty members to experiment in their courses, but still provide enough information to track promising experiments in the future.

2. Reduce the size of seed grants. Though it’s counterintuitive, lowering seed grants to just a few thousand dollars means that a broader segment of the faculty can access funding. Keep initial investments low, and focus larger grants on the most impactful practices following an initial pilot stage.

3. Leverage data to identify effective practices. LMS platforms provide a rich source of data on student engagement and learning. Institutions have found that student LMS activity not only correlates with greater engagement, but can actually lead to sustained improvements in learning over a student’s academic career. Identifying classes that are “hot spots” of LMS activity can point academic leaders to the most effective instructors on campus.

Identifying learning innovations for further investment

Once academic leaders identify the innovators on campus, the next question is how to properly leverage their creativity and instructional expertise. By examining this roster of innovators, academic leaders gain a more informed perspective on which practices are worth further investment. To invest effectively, academic leaders should adopt three strategies:

1. Assess whether the innovations are replicable. While many innovations begin with a single faculty member in an isolated classroom, the most impactful practices are replicable across topic areas and teaching styles. Linking seed funding to the completion of an assessment not only ensures that faculty members reflect on their successes and failures, it allows administrators to use those lessons to drive future decisions on seed and pilot funding.

2. Intensify funding and support for best-in-class innovations to bring to scale. Academic leaders should create a tiered pilot framework in order to prioritize investment and institutional support for the most promising practices. Seed grants can be promoted to pilot projects with sign-off from affected units and some proof of scalability. Before a full campus implementation, faculty and project managers must create a business plan outlining the institution’s role in supporting the innovative practice before they gain approval and financial support from institutional leaders.

Virginia Tech Requires Buy-In from Affected Units before Increasing Support

Virginia Tech Requires Buy-In from Affected Units before Increasing Support

3. Require sign-off from campus units as funding increases. Institutions that successfully scale innovations from the initial seed stage through a pilot process require affected faculty and administrators to sign off, indicating they understand the down-stream impact on support units such as IT and centers for teaching and learning. This prevents innovations from being derailed by a lack of available technical support, for example.

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Scaling Learning Innovations Part I

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