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The Nature of Innovation in the Community College

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December 2009, Volume 22, Number 12


by Terry O'Banion and Laura Weidner

It is well known that the community college itself is an innovation in higher education, an American social invention quite different in purpose and structure from the American four-year colleges imported from England and the American university imported from Germany. The community college is as American as apple pie brimming with the can-do frontier spirit. It is robust and fearless and utilitarian, willing to try anything that works. And it is that spirit that made the community college a crucible of innovation—an innovation spawning innovations to address the special challenges assigned to this institution.

But what is the nature of innovation in the community college environment? Who are the innovators? How does the process of innovation work? What is the impact of innovations? These questions have puzzled educators and League for Innovation leaders for decades, and as the primary national organization dedicated to innovation, the League for Innovation in the Community College decided it was time to address them.

The Innovation of the Year Award is the League’s most visible showcase of its commitment to innovation. Created in 1982, this annual award recognizes outstanding innovation in participating member colleges. Winners can be individuals or teams; all college employees, including classified staff and part-time faculty, are eligible. Criteria for selecting the winner(s) are provided by the League, and colleges are urged to add any criteria they think appropriate. In addition to the award itself, winners are recognized with a photo and brief description of the winning innovation on the League’s website and in a spring issue of the League’s electronic publication, Innovation Showcase. Since the beginning of this award, over 500 innovations have been recognized.

Capitalizing on this rich repository of innovations, the League, with support from MetLife Foundation, launched a study in January 2009 to examine these innovations and to explore the perspectives of the winners of these awards. The study included Innovation of the Year Award winners at 19 community colleges during the decade from 1999 through 2008. This period was selected since winners from earlier years would be difficult to locate. Throughout 2009 the League has been engaged in this study on “The Nature of Innovation in the Community College.”

This Leadership Abstracts article is the first report from that national study and provides a summary of the key findings from the project, including results of the project's online survey* of Innovation of the Year Award winners. The League is producing a full report on the project, which will be featured during a general session at the League’s national Innovations conference in Baltimore in March 2010. In addition, a number of articles will be published, and the full report, including the methodology, will be available on the League website.

Summary of Key Findings

  1. Asked to rate a series of definitions of innovation most appropriate for the environment of the community college, 21 percent of the respondents to the project's survey of Innovation of the Year Award recipients gave equal value to “The creation of new opportunities that are transformative” and “The development or adoption of new or existing ideas for the purpose of improving policies, programs, practices, or personnel.”
  2. Of the 173 innovations produced by the innovators, 23 percent were categorized as course and program development and 13 percent as faculty and staff development.
  3. The majority of the innovators came from the faculty ranks, with 45 percent fulltime faculty and 3 percent part-time faculty; 26 percent of the winners were administrators.
  4. Thirty-eight percent of winners listed instruction as their primary area of responsibility in the college, with 18 percent listing student services.
  5. Only 15 percent of the awards were given to individuals, with 85 percent going to teams. The most prevalent grouping of teams included two to three individuals, noted by 32 percent of the respondents to the survey.
  6. Asked to rate the value of team work, those who were members of a team rated “The innovation was better for being a team—not individual—effort” (78 percent) as Highly Important. “Involvement of a team has improved the innovation’s chances to endure” was rated Highly Important by 74 percent of the respondents. “The collaborative process produced benefits beyond the innovation” was rated Highly Important by 70 percent of the respondents.
  7. Fifty percent of the survey respondents indicated their innovation was an original idea, and 50 percent indicated their innovation was an adaptation of an existing idea, with or without original elements added.
  8. “Improve student learning” was selected by 59 percent of survey respondents as the most important motivating factor for creating the innovation, followed closely by 55 percent who selected “Improve an existing system, process, practice, procedure.”
  9. One-fourth (25 percent) of survey respondents received funding from the college budget to support their innovation; 22 percent received funding from an external grant or contract. Almost one-third (32 percent) indicated they received no funding in support of their innovation.
  10. In terms of nonfinancial support, 32 percent of survey respondents listed their own department or division, and 32 percent listed the office of the president or vice president.
  11. Asked to identify the three factors most important in the success of their innovation, 71 percent of the respondents indicated their own and their team’s enthusiasm and perseverance as the most important. The need for the innovation was listed by 46 percent, and an institutional culture that supports and encourages innovation by 44 percent.
  12. Half (51 percent) identified lack of time as one of three primary barriers to success. Logistical or technical issues were identified by 30 percent a a primary barrier, with unanticipated problems identified by 24 percent.
  13. Asked to rate the impact of their innovation on institutional outcomes, 93 percent of survey respondents rated more creative use of resources as Somewhat Strong or Very Strong. Eighty-six percent rated "more efficient educational practices" and 78 percent rated improving student learning as Somewhat Strong or Very Strong.
  14. Asked the question “How do you know the innovation had the impact (noted in 13 above),” 59 percent of the respondents identified faculty and staff testimonies and anecdotes as the source of information, and 52 percent identified student testimonies and anecdotes as the source.
  15. Respondents were also asked to select the three most significant institutional outcomes for the award-winning innovation. The most frequently selected outcome (70 percent) was “acknowledged by college leaders as a value to the college.” The second most frequently selected outcome (55 percent) was “embedded in the culture of the college and accepted as practice.” “Changed behavior of individuals for whom the innovation was created” was selected by 51 percent of respondents.
  16. In addition to the institutional outcomes, respondents were asked to select the top three personal outcomes for their award-winning innovation. Personal satisfaction was the primary outcome selected by the respondents: 63 percent selected “Satisfaction with being recognized by a national organization such as the League for Innovation,” and 62 percent selected “Satisfaction with being recognized by my colleagues in the college.”
  17. When asked to rate the impact of the award (rather than the impact of the innovation) on various groups and individuals in the institution, 83 percent of respondents rated the impact on themselves (the winner/the team of winners) as Very Strong Impact or Somewhat Strong Impact. Seventy-six percent of respondents rated the impact on the department or division of the winner or team of winners as Very Strong Impact or Somewhat Strong Impact.
  18. Compared to other forms of recognition for their work in education, these innovators place high value on the League’s Innovation of the Year Award. Almost 40 percent rated the award, in comparison to other awards, as Highly Important. Another 29 percent rated the award Somewhat Important. Over two-thirds of the respondents rated the award either Highly or Somewhat Important.
  19. Asked about the actions that occurred in the college as a result of receiving the award, over half (51 percent) rated articles in in-house publications or websites featuring the winners as the highest action. Forty-seven percent of the respondents indicated an awards ceremony, and 37 percent indicated their colleges provided travel funds to make presentations at state and national conferences.
  20. Asked to indicate which activities occurred as the innovation was being developed or implemented, a review of literature related to the innovation” was selected by 46 percent of respondents, as was “pilot or field tests in our college related to this innovation."
  21. The answer to the question “What methods of evaluation have been applied to your award-winning innovation” reflects the same answer for a similar question in #14 above. The methods of evaluation most often used include “faculty and/or staff testimonies/anecdotes” (48 percent) and “student testimonies/anecdotes” (45 percent).
  22. Asked to indicate the various steps taken to sustain the innovation, 53 percent noted that staff has been assigned responsibility to ensure continuity. Forty-four percent indicated that the innovation has expanded to serve a larger number of students and faculty beyond those for which it was originally designed. Forty percent noted that support for the innovation had been incorporated into the college budget.
  23. As an additional way of examining evaluation, the research team asked respondents to rate in importance criteria that “have been identified as useful in evaluating nominated innovations and selecting Innovation of the Year award-winning innovations.” On a scale ranging from Unimportant to Important, 87 percent of respondents rated “Quality: Increases quality in course, program, office, or college,” as Important; 84 percent rated “Impact: Has a significant, positive impact on the target group” as Important; and 63 percent rated “Creativity: Is original or a creative adaptation” as Important.
  24. Respondents were asked to rate a list of characteristics that encourage and support an institutional culture of innovation in terms of importance. Ninety percent rated the characteristic “College leaders visibly support and encourage innovation” as Highly Important. “Risk-taking is encouraged; faculty/staff do not fear failure” was rated Highly Important by 84 percent of the respondents, and “Faculty and staff are encouraged to think creatively and unconventionally” was rated Highly Important by 83 percent of the respondents.

The nature of innovation in the community college depends, in part, on the resources available in the college. But in great part it depends on the culture and climate created by leaders to encourage, support, and celebrate the individuals and teams who design and implement the innovations. This study fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge about community college innovation, and it raises additional questions and issues for further study. What this study does best is to confirm that the community college is a crucible of innovation, perhaps illuminating the fact that the community college itself is one of the most inspiring innovations in American society.

*The survey was distributed to 400 Innovation of the Year Award recipients; 117 responses were received for a response rate of 29 percent.

Terry O'Banion, President Emeritus, League for Innovation in the Community College, and Director, Community College Leadership Program, Walden University, is principal investigator for The Nature of Innovation in the Community College project. Laura Weidner, Dean, Workforce Development at Anne Arundel Community College, is research associate for the project.


Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 09/27/2011 at 10:32 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -