Reimagining innovation in higher education

A primer created for university leaders on how to embed innovation in an organisation's culture, strategy, and operational plans.


In the current landscape, learning and teaching is open to innovation and new ideas. Innovation is defined as new or different, but not necessarily better than what was there before.

In very general terms, innovation means doing something new, whether that’s creating a new product, a new service, or something else. As technology brings an increasing pace of change into the sector, there is an onus on leaders to ensure innovation is aligned with pedagogy.

“Change cannot be put on people. The best way to instil change is to do it with them. Create it with them."

Lisa Bodell, CEO, Futurethink

Impact of innovation

Integrating and embedding innovation into learning, teaching and assessment can:

  • Enhance and improve the student experience
  • Create new pedagogical experiences through the use of new technologies and digital services
  • Provide opportunities for growth and expansion
  • Enable efficiencies and make learning and teaching processes more effective

Innovation and experimentation can also come with risks, such as:

  • Inconsistent experience across subjects, modules, and cohorts
  • A focus on the technology over the pedagogy or end user experience
  • Inconsistent approach to innovation can result in opportunities being missed
  • Innovation for the sake of innovation

Overview of innovation in the sector

Innovation is often about changing what we do for a possible future in response to an external impact. It is always difficult to sit in front of a blank piece of paper and try and imagine the future. There are tools available that can help teams to identify new issues or opportunities and explore the implications of these identified issues or opportunities.

With external impacts, it can be challenging to avoid a kneejerk reaction as time and resources can be limited. The opportunity to reflect on the longer-term implications can sometimes be missed as you try to achieve a swift solution in the given situation.

There might be disciplines or schools where innovation flourishes but whole-institution approaches to innovation are rare, with a few very notable exceptions. Universities vary widely in their levels of innovation maturity and there is a substantial knowledge and experience gap, both within and across institutions.

It can be easy to forget that people do not always like innovation, and that innovation does not automatically always mean better. Much of the time innovation for a lot of people is not better. And sometimes it can be worse than what was before. Most of the time it will just be different.

When talking about innovation, it’s important to be aware that innovation as a buzzword is often used in marketing to sell aspirations and technology, and also by senior teams writing strategies that use innovation as a substitute for creativity and performance.

Innovation is much more likely to flourish organically in a supportive environment, compared with overloading staff and forcing innovation on to them.

Four-phase innovation model

Taken from our vision and strategy toolkit, here is one model of innovation which is divided into four phases. The four phases are presented here as linear, but reality tends to be messier and sometimes the phases may make more sense in a different order.

It may sometimes be more logical to adopt an iterative approach to the phases, revisiting them throughout the development and implementation of your plans.

The four phases are:

  1. Understanding the present – this section focuses on understanding how present issues may shape your long-term plans
  2. Imagining the future – this phase is designed to help you decide what future you want for your university
  3. Identifying solutions – this phase focuses on identifying new ideas to include in your plans, and once identified, picking the best ones, testing them and persuading others to back them
  4. Implementing plans – the final phase focuses on securing buy in for your plans

Understanding the process of innovation and ensuring it is embedded across the organisation will ensure a more holistic and encompassing approach to change.

A vision for innovation

A university that celebrates and embeds innovation across learning, teaching and assessment, while ensuring that the focus is on the end users. Innovation is part of the culture and is integrated into the strategy, operational plans and the vision.

Innovation action plan

Does your university have a shared understanding of what innovation in learning, teaching and assessment looks like?

Reflect on how innovation supports the strategic aims of the university specifically in respect to learning and teaching. What are you trying to achieve?

Make a plan to create a holistic and university-wide approach to innovation. Reflect on how innovations, once identified, are shared across the university and implemented to maximise impact. How is the process of innovation governed across the organisation without adding an overly bureaucratic overhead, but ensuring oversight.

Embed innovation into the university vision, strategy and planning to empower a culture of innovation. Ensure that it is built into objectives (appraisals, performance reviews) and that appropriate resources are allocated for innovation.

Celebrate success, but also learn from what doesn’t work.


University leaders need to identify, invest in, and champion their vision for innovation in learning, teaching and assessment – one that can adapt to change and uncertainty.

It’s important that people are at the heart of innovation. Leaders should ensure the focus is on the end user, whether that’s students, staff, or both.

Universities should be aware of the changing needs of staff in this uncertain and unsettling period of digital transformation.


"I learnt quite a long time ago that trying to change culture is a massive monolithic exercise. You have to get the entire organisation on board and have a clear vision for everyone to buy into – it’s a long, slow and difficult process to get off the ground."

Stuart Brown, director of digital technology services at the University of Reading

Help and support

There are many ways we, and other partners, can support you in transforming the student experience though the use of blended learning and supporting digital technologies.

Advice and guidance



Edtech insights

  • Digital learning rebooted - this report highlights a range of responses from UK universities, ranging from trailblazing efforts at University of Northampton with its embedded 'active blended learning’ approach, to innovation at Coventry University which is transforming each module in partnership with learning experience platform Aula
  • Assessment rebooted – this report reviews how the higher education sector had to adapt their assessment practices to fit online delivery

Learning and teaching reimagined

This primer has been designed to be used with other resources created as part of the learning and teaching reimagined initiative.

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).