I was working the floor of a trade fair the other day when I was stopped in my tracks by an old friend who said, rather wistfully I thought, “you see, we don’t innovate here. The Board were all born before the middle of the last century, and I think we are in the wrong sector for rapid change anyway”.  This week I am in California, and whatever I feel about Silicon Valley (like, how do you know that you are in Cupertino or Los Altos or Mountain View when it all looks the same?) the residents have a refreshingly uncomplicated view of innovation outside of the built environment. They know it is all the same.

In an earlier blog I sought to explain some of my thinking about education and innovation in the context of the great January trade fair on British educational technology, BETT.  So afterwards I checked back to see who won the awards  at the great event.  To my delight, the leading award for innovation in digital content went to Cambridge University Press.  Now you must know that this 400 year old publisher (founded in 1584), part of an 850 year old educational institution, is not normally regarded these days as a frontline primary (elementary) school publisher, and attracts some condescending and at times downright derogatory remarks from its major competitors in this field.  Yet Race To Learn, developed with the Williams Formula One motor racing team, is a fit for purpose digital product which is both attractive to learners and uses a great deal of blended digital innovation to succeed.  “Superb activities that are highly engaging for children …a well thought through support for cross-curricular learning ” said the judges of this scheme built around software for interactive whiteboards by the Cambridge team at Cambridge-Hitachi.

And the Cambridge team is not composed of frame-breaking digital whiz kid geniuses from the world of games or of consumer entertainment.  It is however built around huge experience of the marketplace, a willingness to find out how learners learn, and a lack of inhibition around experimentation and trialling.  These elements all belong in the innovation bag.  And it does collaborate – note the Hitachi link – and the unit responsible for this work at Cambridge is called the New Directions Group, which also suggests people who are licensed to innovate.  These factors are vital too.

And then when you see one you start, in the same week, to see others. There was Atmospeer , a research tool for workflow and social connectivity in Atmospheric Sciences.  So who did that?  Some whizzy software group down here in the Valley?  No, that comes from  Proquest, whose name goes with Archive and Aggregator, not Innovator. Brilliant!  And over here we have disruption of the old-style college textbook markets with innovatory business models ( innovation does not have to be written in code).  Who is doing that?  CengageBrain is a rental scheme developed by textbook  market leader Cengage.  In the same week Barnes and Noble made a similar announcement.  If you cannot beat Chegg and CourseSmart, innovate around them.

In short, innovation is a game we can all play regardless of age and background. It reminds me of selling dial-up online law in the early 1980s.  We thought our lawyer users were all the newly-qualified lawyers with a modern minded approach to productivity and content completion for effective decision-making.  Wrong.  Many of the young users were “old”  fogies who wanted the practise of law to be just the way they had imagined it to be when they were growing up.  And some of the best users were close to retirement practitioners who didn’t worry about status (computers were then for secretaries only) or making mistakes.  You never can tell until you immerse yourself.


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