Pushing the Boundaries of Higher Education: Change and Tradition in Teaching and Learning

By Tony Bates, Distinguished Visiting Professor, The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Faculty and instructors (professors) in higher education institutions are facing unprecedented challenges, including:

● the need to shift focus from delivery of content to the development of higher-order skills, such as knowledge management, creative and critical thinking, independent learning, and problem-solving, if the changing needs of a digital society are to be adequately met;

● the need for instructors to have expertise in pedagogy as well as subject matter if they are to develop successfully skills such as those listed above;

● technology provides opportunities to deal with the increasing diversity of the student body, to improve the cost-effectiveness of teaching, and to ensure that students are digitally literate, but this requires instructors to understand better the strengths and limitations of different media and technologies within specific teaching or learning contexts.

The future economic and social development of nations will depend very much on how individual teachers, schools, university and college administrations, and national governments respond to these challenges (Winthrop, Williams and McGivney, 2016). In this paper I look at how at least at the individual level some instructors are responding to the challenge of using new technologies in Canada.


Professor Sue Dawson teaches gross anatomy at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Students can use their mobile phones or tablets to scan the QR tag on classroom anatomical models to access Professor Dawson’s videos, which she makes with the models using her iPhone.

Investigating how faculty and instructors are innovating

I have been involved in a project developed by a provincial government organization, Contact North, in Ontario, called ‘Pockets of Innovation’. Contact North has sent three researchers, including myself, to look at how faculty and instructors are actually using new technologies in their teaching in universities and colleges in Ontario, the rest of Canada, and internationally. There are now nearly 200 such cases written up, which can be found on the Contact North web site. These cases are based on personal visits and one-on-one interviews with the instructors themselves, using a pre-determined but fairly open interview structure that aims to cover the following topics:

opportunity: the overall teaching context (class size, subject and type of course, for instance) and the particular challenge the instructor was seeking to address;

innovation: a description of the innovation itself, including the purpose of the innovation, the technology used and any necessary organizational issues that were addressed;

benefits and outcomes: as seen by the instructor, what the innovation achieved, for instance, in terms of learning outcomes or better completion rates, and so on;

challenges and enhancements: what difficulties were encountered in implementing the innovation, unexpected consequences, any negative student, instructor or administrative reaction, and what the instructor had done or planned to do next to enhance the innovation;

potential: a discussion of the potential for diffusion to other instructors or other teaching contexts;

further information: how to contact the instructor.

The reports of each innovation aimed to be purely descriptive, with no attempt made to pass judgement on the innovation. The relevant institutional Centre for Teaching and Learning chose the individual instructors to be interviewed, and the draft reports were checked and verified by the instructors themselves. In all my cases, the reports were published by Contact North, with only minor editorial changes to ensure consistency (for examples, ensuring that each case described the course, the department, the name of the institution, and the province/jurisdiction.)

The Pockets of Innovation were never intended as a quantitative study and my report relies on relatively few cases (about 20 in all from 14 different universities or colleges). However, these innovations were analysed within a framework of my almost 40 years of prior research into teaching in higher education. It is also important to note that these 20 cases were chosen by institutional Centres of Teaching and Learning as being representative of what they considered to be the best examples of innovative teaching within their institution (there was a maximum of two examples from each institution).

This paper is an interim analysis of my 20 case studies (a full study of all 200 will be undertaken by Contact North in the near future). The main variables I am examining are as follows:

● the spread across different academic disciplines of innovation in teaching with technology;

● reasons for the innovation

● the extent to which the innovation is based on prior research/best practices;

● technology: what technologies are being used by the instructors to create their innovation;

● what pedagogical approaches/teaching styles are being used, and what kind of learning outcomes are being sought (e.g. understanding, analysis) or achieved;

● the extent to which the innovations are spreading to other instructors or departments within or beyond the institution (diffusion).

I cannot speak for the other researchers (we all work independently) but I will set out below some of the interim conclusions I have reached as a result of the studies I have done, and will also draw on some of the other studies published by Contact North.

Early generalizations

In which subject areas is innovation taking place?

The 20 cases covered a wide range of disciplines, including:

● biology/anatomy

● cardiology

● health sciences

● computer science

● business

● education

● psychotherapy

● emergency response management

● aboriginal literature/culture

● gender issues.

There was no apparent indication from these 20 cases that innovation is focused in specific academic subject areas. A review of all 200 cases would provide stronger findings.

The main reasons for innovating

A major reason for some of the instructors to use technology was either to increase access to their teaching or to provide greater flexibility for students. Altogether nine of the 20 instructors gave one or both of these reasons for the innovation. There were three MOOCs and a course on aboriginal literature that were aimed directly at increasing access beyond traditional students within the university or college; and five courses where the technology was used to increase flexible access to students already enrolled. One reason put forward more than once was the problems students faced during the winter in Canada in getting to campus for lectures. In these cases lectures were being recorded (as well as delivered face-to-face) so students could access them whenever and from wherever they wished.

Most instructors were either faced with a specific problem (such as rapid increase in the size of their class or poor completion rates) and were looking for a solution, or had ‘discovered’ a particular technology and had found that it could be used to meet a specific need in their teaching – such as providing more flexibility for students.

Perhaps the most sobering conclusion is that only three of the instructors I interviewed were aware of or had drawn on best practices in pedagogy or online teaching theory or practice in developing their innovation. In about half of the cases, instructors had worked closely with instructional designers or course developers, but the rest had largely relied on their own resources.

What technologies were being used in the innovations?

No one particular technology emerged as a killer application, although the use of recorded lectures (six cases) and live web-conferencing (five cases) was quite common.

Learning management systems were used by at least eleven of the instructors. However, the innovation was usually associated with other technologies on which the innovation tended to be focused that were used in conjunction with an LMS. There were two cases which were innovative uses of the LMS itself, one for peer assessment, and one for online talking circles (an aboriginal pedagogy).

Mobile apps or mobile phones were used in two cases, one case included a review and analysis of the potential of emerging technologies for teaching as the topic of the course, and thus incorporated a wide variety of social media, and one course involved the development of an in-house synchronous simulation technology for decision-making in real time in complex contexts. Two studies used databases as ways to improve decision-making regarding instructional design and curriculum planning, respectively.

Indeed none of my cases involved what might be called advanced or ‘leading edge’ technologies, such as learning analytics, personalized learning environments, augmented reality or artificial intelligence (AI).

What pedagogical approaches or teaching methods were being used?

I was particularly interested in whether the use of new technologies leads to changes in teaching methods, and in particular whether it results in or at least attempts to develop ‘21st century skills’ of knowledge management, critical thinking, problem-solving, team-work, and so on.

This is a more subjective judgement on my part, but I found 10 cases (half in all) which tried to go beyond the standard lecture format focused on understanding, and used the technology specifically to develop skills such as decision-making, analysis and application, scientific argumentation, and team-work.

This of course is a ‘cup half-filled’ argument, because it also means that at least half of the innovations thought to be innovative – at least by the nominating Teaching and Learning Centre – did not lead to major changes in teaching approach. This would include the MOOCs, recorded lectures and web conferencing used primarily for content delivery.

However, this is a somewhat harsh judgment as in some cases the purpose of the innovation was not specifically to change teaching method or learning goals, but to increase access or flexibility, which in itself may be a worthwhile purpose.

To what extent had the innovation spread to other instructors?

Three of the innovations were widely adopted by instructors in other universities or colleges:

  • purpose-built conferencing software for ‘scattered’ real-time group decision-making,
  • an online model for assisting instructors to design their teaching events
  • a learning outcomes based model for planning curricula.

In another three cases, other instructors in the same department, but teaching different courses, had adopted an innovation.

However, the majority of the innovations were isolated and idiosyncratic, being limited either to the individual instructor, or to a colleague teaching the same course, who was usually personally involved in the development of the innovation. None of the institutions apparently had a strategy to disseminate teaching innovations more widely.

Summary of conclusions

This is very much an interim report. The main value of the whole project is to allow instructors to share their experiences in a non-judgemental, descriptive manner, so that other instructors can make their own judgement about whether to adopt or adapt another instructor’s innovation. What I may think as being pedestrian or unoriginal, another instructor may find extremely useful and relevant for their own situation. So I am imposing an analysis that was never intended in the main project. Also, readers are strongly recommended to read the actual cases reviewed by myself and other researchers involved. My quantitative summary here does not do justice to the richness of the individual cases.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting conclusions I am willing to make:

  • Instructors see innovation in education as less about the use of a specific, leading-edge technology, and more about meeting instructor and student needs in a more efficient and effective manner;
  • technology can increase access and flexibility without radical changes in teaching methods or learning outcomes, but to push the boundaries of higher education by developing the skills and knowledge needed by learners in the 21st century, the use of technology is not enough: it needs to be combined with innovative teaching methods. This was not a feature – or the intent – of most of the 20 innovations I reviewed.


Winthrop, R., Williams T. and McGivney, E. (2016) Skills in the Digital Age: How Should Educations Systems Evolve? Washington DC: The Brookings Institute

6 thoughts on “Pushing the Boundaries of Higher Education: Change and Tradition in Teaching and Learning”

  1. Hi Laia, I am excited to participate in this conference virtually and just sat down to look at some position papers. Well, you had me at “Canada”–I am at SFU in BC. I love the “Pockets of Innovation” project and I plan to read more of the narratives on my own in weeks to come. (I am fairly new to the online teaching world…I have taught in traditional face-to-face format [but not “lecturing”] for years but am now in the first week of an innovative online program that aims to implement in the online format the principles and “tools of engagement” at the core of the Imaginative Education philosophy/approach to teaching)–all very eye opening!
    I am intrigued by your comment about the “marginalization” (?is that the best term) of actual pedagogy talk when it comes to innovation in program development and delivery. As a Fac of Ed member at SFU whose focus is on engagement and how we can maximize learning and engagement preK-post secondary this is unsettling–sober truth can do that to you… What can be done to bring pedagogy talk more centrally into focus in your opinion? As you note, there is a greater need now for Profs in all faculties to have some sense of pedagogy as well as content.


    1. Hi Gillian, as you point out in your other comment, the paper was written by Tony Bates. I’m sure he will have an answer to all your questions. Thanks for your comment and for stirring up the conversation in twitter


  2. Thanks for your comments, Gillian – so typical of technology that we are talking across Vancouver via Barcelona!

    You ask: What can be done to bring pedagogy talk more centrally into focus in your opinion? As you note, there is a greater need now for Profs in all faculties to have some sense of pedagogy as well as content.

    This is a huge topic – perhaps the most important question of all for the future of higher education, because content now is freely available and ‘out there’. Thus the role of the university teacher needs to change dramatically. However, the training they receive is in research, not teaching – most faculty are primarily content specialists.

    Ideally we should be building training in teaching, particularly different pedagogies, into their post-graduate degrees if they wish to become eventually a university or college instructor, but there are very powerful systemic pressures that make that very difficult to do. You can see more of my thoughts on this at: https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/part/chapter-12-supporting-teachers-and-instructors-in-a-digital-age/

    Technology itself can help here. We should be building online tools that enable instructors to properly design their courses, embedding pedagogical choice within the tool, on demand as they need it. Indeed, one of the cases I looked at tried to do just that except it was focused on a particular approach to course design (ADDIE), rather than giving instructors alternative pedagogical approaches.

    I look forward to discussing this topic with you further, either here in Vancouver or in Barcelona!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tony, So funny…nice weather we are having these days, hey? Crazy to go via Barcelona but I’m happy to engage this way all the same.
      Totally agree that technology can help–but no panacea. Access to information is much easier now, but the challenge for the teacher has and always will be making the knowledge meaningful, emotionally and imaginatively engaging for the learners. Equipping profs with those tools when they are trained in content knowledge in research, not pedagogy, is huge challenge.
      Do you know of Imaginative Education? Dr. Kieran Egan’s work discusses how cognitive tools engage all learners and how we can employ them in all teaching contexts. Imaginative Education. This approach is partly what I teach in the Grad programs at SFU. My “imaginED” blog is all about a cognitive tools approach to teaching–perhaps of interest in this conversation? Check out this Tools of Imagination Series..all apply to #HigherEd but “philosophical tools” especially. Definitely #PushingHE with these ideas. Would love your thoughts!
      Whole series here: http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/tips-for-imaginative-educators/
      Tools for #HigherEd here: http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/27/engaging-imagination-in-higher-education-use-these-tools-with-adult-learners/


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