When discussing the concept of truth, many people will make the distinction between “truth” (lower case t) and “Truth” (upper case T), where “Truth” refers to ultimate truth that is true for all, and “truth” referring more to contextual truth that may be true for some but not others. Or, to simplify, absolute Truth and relative truth.

In many ways, I see the same need to differentiate between “Innovation” and “innovation” when discussing the overall concept of innovation. Of course, I’m not sure if I really want to make such a problematic connection between innovation and truth. But I think there is something to determining whether someone is referring to absolute innovation or relative innovation. There are ideas and tools that are new to everyone and therefore count as absolute innovation, and then there are ideas and tools that are not new to everyone, but are new to those that are just discovering them.

For example, online learning is a concept that has been around for decades. It is not absolutely Innovative in a general sense. But to schools that have no online courses, their first online courses will be innovative in their context. Or to a person that has avoided going online in general (or didn’t have access to the internet), the ability to take online courses will also be innovative to them.

Of course, even the idea of “absolute innovation” is problematic. Virtual Reality seems like a new, innovative idea to most…. but the truth is, the concept of virtual reality has been around for some time. Maybe you can more accurately say that the idea of a more widely-available digitally-created simulation-based computer-run semi-immersive interactive virtual reality is innovative in general to anyone. A lot of dashes there.

And I have also intentionally not spelled out how I am defining innovation beyond “something new” for this article. Another problematic area.

So why does all this matter? It probably doesn’t for most. I first ran into this issue 6-7 years ago as a chair for a proposal review committee for an “emerging technologies” track at a conference. The track description relied heavily on the term “innovation” to delineate between “emerging technology” and “latest and greatest technology” (because that was another track). We had submissions that ranged from using the (just recently-released at the time) Google Wave in classrooms to teaching with PowerPoint. Where does one draw the line between “current” and “emerging” based on the criteria of “innovation”?

Well, long story short… you don’t if you want to keep everyone happy :) You let people self-define whether they are innovative or not in their context and then let them take the heat if the session attendees don’t agree that their idea was innovative in general.

So it might surprise people that as an “Innovation Coordinator,” I don’t just look at things like virtual reality and learning analytics. I also look at many established instructional design and digital presence ideas. I also look at low tech ideas on how to be a human in a digital age. Even more shocking to some is how I talk about how throwing a handful of dirt at a poster board on the ground to demonstrate the “Big Bang” to 8th grade students as being one of the more innovative ideas I utilized back when I was an 8th Grade Science teacher. Sure, I also created my own online course hub that I hand-coded in html in the summer of 2000 long before most were putting K-12 material online. But I also had to find a way to help 8th graders visualize the Big Bang on a $200 a year total budget (classroom material, science equipment, everything – $200). So what did I do? I put a white poster-board on the ground, grabbed a handful of dirt, pebbles, and grass in my hand, and did a 2 minute demo on what the Big Bang would look like. It was effective. It was cheap. It was innovative in that context.

I definitely wish there was more focus on looking at innovation beyond the coolest, newest, most expensive gadgets, apps, programs, ideas, etc. How do we innovate when cost is a barrier? When technology access is non-existent? When we need to transfer online lessons to face-to-face classes? We have all kinds of media outlets that look at Innovation the moment “it” happens – any new device, tool, idea, app. But what does innovation look like in a contextual situation, where budgets are small, resources are constrained, and technology access is limited? And not just current situations, but situations that have historically lacked in these areas? How do we innovate access to technology itself? How do we innovate the cost of technology? There is a much wider and more nuanced conversation about innovation to be had.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

4 thoughts on “Is Innovation Contextual or Absolute?

  1. Very thoughtful. Just this past week, I turned down positions at two big universities in southern California who were creating “exciting and innovative” online programs. Getting to the nitty-gritty, the positions are the same as I was doing years ago at another university: working with faculty to put their courses online. UGH. Interpreted, this means working one-on-one with each faculty member, most of whom have never put anything online, as they try to move outside their comfort zone of lecture and test. My response to this situation, “At this rate, we’ll be in good shape a generation from now.” So yes, innovation is relative -but then its not when the rest of the world has moved on.

  2. Seems easy to me- innovation should not be evaluated on the technology alione but the practice / application people are doing with it. Of course that’s lower case… I’m not sure I believe in upper class.

    How else would mobile technology remain on the one year horizon of adoption for 11 years?

  3. Matt Crosslin

    Kevin – I think you touch on an important issue – they need someone to do that position, but for you it would seem like going back several steps. So even in hiring, organizations need to realize their context for innovation.

    But you also bring up something to consider for “the rest of world.” What part of the world is that? The billions that have never been online? Surely those colleges are ahead of that part of the world. Or is it the million or so that were online but have decided to ditch the Internet? They claim to be more advanced than the rest of us, but did they move on or go backwards? Are they ahead of all of us, or reverting? If they are right and they have moved on beyond all of us, then would the billions that are not online be better served to just skip ever getting online? Those that have ditched the Internet would say yes, many others of us would say no. So even which part of the world is advanced or has or hasn’t moved on is often relative. To Alan’s point, is there really truly a (big I) Innovation or just people that are putting their context at the center of the world? (like we all do from time to time).

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