How Innovative is Your Innovative Course?

Screenshot 2020-02-13 15.22.35Alan November is an EdTech guru. A former teacher, headmaster, university and TED lecturer (see one of his TED Talks here), acclaimed author, and head of a successful educational consulting firm,

Alan is one of a handful of folks worldwide recognized as influential in the realm of digital literacy (find his bio here). If you haven’t read or seen his stuff, take a peek at his Ted Talk referenced above (you won’t be sorry). Alan is funny and unassuming, but also provocative.

Case in point: one of Alan’s pieces asks us techie/teacher folks if we are “rich in technology but poor in innovation” in terms of technology integration. His premise is that many of us are lulled into thinking we are good at utilizing innovative technology in our courses by the mere virtue of having Canvas classrooms full of tech-savvy students armed with the latest gizmos and whizz-bangs. In the piece, Alan suggests that if we are to know whether we are pursuing innovation in our classrooms, then we need to call up our most innovative lesson and ask ourselves six key questions:

  1. Did the lesson build the capacity for critical thinking on the web?

  2. Did the lesson develop new lines of inquiry?

  3. Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?

  4. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?

  5. Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?

  6. Does the assignment demonstrate “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself pretty good in terms of the integration of tech into my courses. But when I first read Alan’s piece, I began to doubt myself. Was I an innovative teacher? I thought so … but maybe not?

One dreary December day, I decided to put myself to the test. I reflected upon one of the lessons that I considered to be innovative and then applied Alan’s six questions to my recollection of the lesson, jotting down my insights and answers; thoughts which I shall share with you below.

Before I do however, I should tell you a little about the “innovative” lesson I selected. A few years back, I taught a global issues course, and one of the issues we highlighted during the course was poverty. During our month-long discussion on poverty, I had each student track their personal spending for a month and then compare their spending to the $2-per-day poverty threshold established by the United Nations. In addition to keeping a spending spreadsheet, I asked students to reflect upon their spending habits relative to their thoughts about people living at or below $2 per day. For students who wished to do so, I issued a challenge for them to join me to go for a month in attempting to spend less than $2 per day and to digitally log/blog, vlog their journeys.

So how did this “innovative” lesson fare as measured against Alan’s six questions?

Did the assignment build the capacity for critical thinking on the web? At the outset of the lesson, students were directed to the UN website to read about different poverty levels and to read about the background to the $2-per-day poverty threshold. Part of the lesson also directed students to read and discuss several case studies (published by The Choices Program) of families living in varying levels of incomes throughout the world. The lesson focused on primary source material (a positive) and also encouraged students to examine poverty through different perspectives (also a positive). I did not have students conduct research on the purchasing power of $2 per day in the countries in which the case studies were written (a missed opportunity, thus a negative) nor did we examine any alternative definitions of poverty other than those articulated by the UN (a negative). Grade: C.

Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry? The central theme of the lesson was to inquire about what it might feel like to live on $2 per day or less, so the lesson itself was inquiry-based (a positive). Because we missed out on a discussion of purchasing power in different nations however, we missed out on lines of inquiry related to purchasing power (a negative). For example, we might have inquired about living on $2 per day in Lesotho versus neighboring South Africa. These lines of inquiry about the relativity of purchasing power would have enriched the learning experience and would have offered the students additional opportunities to critically analyze other sources of information. Grade: C/D.

Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible? During the month-long “unit,” I planned and provided for numerous class discussions and peer editing sessions of written rough drafts (a positive). Bloggers and vloggers shared their links and the rest of the students in the class and even the larger school community were encouraged to reflect and comment (also a positive). Grade: A.

Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world? In keeping a spending journal and reflecting on spending habits versus the spending habits of impoverished peoples, my students were asked to record their thoughts in a Word doc, in an online blog, or via a YouTube channel (a positive). For those students who wished to blog or vlog, I helped them set up Blogger and YouTube accounts. About half of my students chose this option. Through weekly school bulletins, members of the school community were made aware of my students’ blogs and vlogs and so could follow along and even comment. Grade: A/B.

Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)? Although the work asked of students was authentic, there was no community component to it (a big negative). During that month, we could have visited a community shelter or food bank. At some point during the month, we could have volunteered in the community. We could have investigated sources of local poverty and/or had community leaders come in to speak. I note that I/we missed a lot of opportunities here. Grade: D/F.

Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill? At the time, a few individuals and groups had published their own “$2 a day challenges,” and we did examine some of these blogs and vlogs (a positive). We missed the opportunity to view and discuss, in general, what elements constituted an exemplary blog or vlog (a negative). Grade: C.

More full disclosure: at the time, I thought my lesson was pretty cool and so did my supervising admins. By its third year, the challenge had become something of a campus-wide rite of passage, and our class “journey” even once made the local evening news. Back then, I would have given myself an A in terms of innovation.

In using Alan’s benchmark, I ended up with two As, two Cs, a D, and an F; a far cry from an A.

Like I said at the beginning of this blog, Alan’s work is thought-provoking. It’s one of the reasons I follow him on social media and read most of what he has written. He urges me to think, and his ideas cause me to reflect upon my own practices. In this particular case, Alan’s work has prompted me to reconsider what exactly constitutes academic excellence and exemplary technology integration. Years ago, I thought I had achieved a degree of pre-eminence. Now with the gift of hindsight, less hubris, and a more thorough benchmark, I see that my lesson wasn’t even all that “good,” let alone “great.”

There’s always work to be done. Every course is a work in progress.


Kyle Purpura is an Instructional Designer and Trainer for Christian Brothers University’s Center for Digital Instruction. He holds an Educational Technology Master’s Degree from Boise State University and has served as a technology trainer and content developer in higher education overseas, as well as a high school administrator. 

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