Is Innovation Contextual or Absolute?

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.