What Is the NITLE Innovation Studio?

20 Feb

Innovation by Thomas Hawk

The Innovation Studio began with a challenge.  When I was talking about the NITLE Symposium with the ever-innovative Dave Wedaman, he asked what it take to transform a conference from a passive listening event to an active doing event, where people come together to construct knowledge. Brilliant question! With Dave, Joe Murphy, Rebecca Davis, members of the NITLE Symposium Program Committee, and others at NITLE, I began thinking through what such a leadership development program would entail. I articulated some basic design requirements: it should foster collaboration, creative problem solving, and concrete outcomes. It should help people develop the skills and portfolio to take their careers to the next level. It should also get away from the problem that plagues many workshops: you come, pick up some new skills and ways of thinking, but then return to the bustle of your regular life, with little opportunity to practice what you learned.

To design what I hope will be a transformative leadership development experience, I looked at a number of models, particularly design thinking and entrepreneurship education. These models hold several appeals. First, they embrace learning by doing. Second, they recognize the importance of working collaboratively to integrate different perspectives and skill-sets.  Most importantly, they articulate a process for problem solving that emphasizes understanding the needs of the user community, defining the problem that you are trying to solve, and creating and testing prototypes.  Learning is at the core.

Not only does the Innovation Studio aim to help leaders hone their skills as innovators, but also to cultivate innovative solutions to thorny challenges facing liberal education. Among the challenges proposed by the Innovation Scholars are: supporting open access publishing; integrating information technology skills across the curriculum; using ethnographic studies to shape the future of library services; establishing structures, tools and processes for collaboration and information sharing; and linking together classes in different locations to foster collaborative (even global) learning. This week the Innovation Scholars will pitch their project ideas in two-minute videos. The Studio members will select the top three or four projects, then break up into teams to develop them.

The Studio curriculum takes participants through a series of challenges with the end goal of enabling them to develop a product–a web site, piece of software, organization, grant application, toolkit, curriculum, etc.–that promises to have an impact on liberal education. Steps in this process include defining the problem, gathering user input, generating ideas, creating (and iterating upon) a business model, developing and testing prototypes, and building customer and financial development models. The Studio supports this learning by offering a structure, a set of resources (readings, videos, and tools), and access to mentors (who will be named publicly soon).

Designing the Innovation Studio presented its own thorny challenge: how to create a rich, project-based learning experience that combines an intense face-to-face experience with ongoing online interactions. Given that the participants in the Studio are busy professionals, it was unrealistic to expect that they could take three months away from their lives to work on their projects face-to-face at a startup incubator. However, using online collaboration tools, they can work in distributed teams to build their projects. The Innovation Scholars will come together face-to-face at the 2012 NITLE Symposium, where they will embody the conference’s theme of “Inventing the Future.” At the Symposium, the Innovation Scholars will pitch their ideas, receive feedback from mentors and the NITLE community, gather user input, and work hard to refine their projects. They will unveil their work at an online Demo Day to be held at the end of the summer. What makes the Innovation Studio go is not the technologies, but the people: the team members who have dedicated themselves to this process, the mentors who will guide them.

Like any startup, the Innovation Studio is itself an experiment, so we will be evaluating the program throughout, looking at the curriculum, the technologies, the mentoring, etc.  Does a particular online meeting tool support seamless engagement? Do Studio participants find it useful to learn about business model generation? We will find out, and we will use those insights to improve the Studio. I hope that what we learn through the Studio will benefit liberal education more generally, as we explore models for realizing the best practices of liberal education–research, civic engagement, collaboration–in an environment that blends online and face-to-face learning.

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2 Responses to “What Is the NITLE Innovation Studio?”

  1. Cristian Opazo February 21, 2012 at 3:52 am #

    What a privilege to be part of this experiment! It is both comforting and exciting to see how much thought you and your collaborators have put into this project. If we all do our best, this will surely be a memorable experience for every participant.

  2. Lisa Spiro February 21, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Thanks, Cristian! I think we have a great group of participants, so I’m eager to see how things unfold…

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