Solving the NGLC Puzzle: Scaffold to the Stars

Solving the NGLC Puzzle (Part 1 of 2)

Author: Stephen R. Acker, Research Director
Ohio’s Scaffold to the Stars

The NGLC puzzle: NGLC tasked its grant recipients with a difficult, multi-part challenge:  (1) Innovate (2) at scale (3) within an organizational setting that (4) generates confirmatory evidence in (5) a short period of time. Fair enough; NGLC provides substantial and flexible resources to try and meet this challenge. We’ll use Ohio’s Scaffold to the Stars, our NGLC open educational resources (OER) project, to consider strategies for solving this puzzle.

Project Synopsis: Ohio’s Scaffold to the Stars assembled modular OER content to serve a sequence of math and applied statics courses. This content was selected by faculty/librarian teams and housed in a database at OhioLINK, a library consortium that serves the state of Ohio. Twenty-two faculty created personalized syllabi from these content collections and offered 73 course sections to 1,400 students at seven institutions. Faculty benefitted from greater flexibility and students saved more than $100,000 (calculated on a net-cost of-use basis, a more conservative metric than substitution costs for new print). In most cases, learning outcomes between course sections that used commercial and OER content did not differ at statistically significant levels. Important methodological nuances, a more extended project description, and greater context can be found in the NGLC Ohio’s Scaffold to the Stars final report.

This collaborative project produced a number of lessons learned regarding the process of innovation. These lessons are organized as strategies that future NGLC grantees might consider as they attempt to solve “the NGLC puzzle.”

Although comments are organized within each category of this challenge, it is important to remember that successful innovation involves solving a “simultaneous equation,” addressing the challenges in all categories at the same time.  This post will examine the first three pieces of the puzzle: (1) Innovate (2) at scale (3) within an organizational setting. In our next post, we will look at the final two pieces: (4) generating confirmatory evidence in (5) a short period of time.

(1) Innovate: Innovators often are seduced by the promise of the new and amazed that neither the market nor their organization embraces change with their personal enthusiasm. Michael Hart introduced copyright cleared, digitally-shared, resources in 1971 when he founded Project Gutenberg. Even though we can trace the OER “innovation” back these 40 years, our community describes awareness of OER as one of its primary challenges. An interesting question is how to equip innovative individuals with the skill set to differentiate self from market, and recognize that innovation is in the eye of the beholder rather than an attribute of an idea or product.

Lesson learned: Listen carefully to the enthusiasm and reticence of others; how they, not you, characterize the innovation will determine its diffusion. Too often, innovators forget to “listen to the wisdom behind resistance” and dismiss the resistance as a lack of [fill in the blank- vision, motivation, preparation . . .] on behalf of the administration, faculty, or student body.

(2) at scale: Proofs of concept can be compelling as wire-frame models and can draw their power from the imagination unleashed in the prototype. Ohio’s Scaffold to the Stars initial interface demonstrated the value of OER by clustering modular content within learning objectives. Faculty selected from this indexed content and constructed syllabi using resources that fit their personal needs and teaching styles. Later on, we discovered that our interface was incompatible with certain versions of Internet Explorer™. To deliver “at scale” requires an innovation compatible with all content delivery environments.

Lesson learned: Wait—don’t rush to scale. Recognize that “scale” may conflict with “scope.” Educational innovations often succeed only when economies of scope are addressed- can the innovation work within multiple browsers, learning management systems, instructional strategies? Seldom are the economies of scale in service to a single large community sufficient for wide-scale adoption and continuing maintenance of an innovation. The world of open source software, that evolves in dynamic tension between contributions to the trunk and initiatives in the branches, can teach those of us in the OER movement. We need to balance meeting the needs in local environments with maintenance and development challenges in the community at large.

(3) within an organizational setting: In tradition-proud higher education, there is a mismatch between how the institution preserves and foregrounds its value structure and how innovators champion and profess theirs.

Here’s a picture (see Figure 1):

                           Innovation- Buffered by the winds of change

The Present                                       The Future

Individual innovation:                         >>>>>>>>>>
Organizational innovation:                 <<<<<<<<

Figure 1. Motivation for organizational innovation is built as an inverted pyramid, rests in delicate balance, and is highly susceptible to disturbance. The balance point for this inverted pyramid is often an individual innovator, who builds a team and operates within organizational goal structures. The innovation encounters legacy, “organizational wisdom,” and inertia from this posture. This innovator’s triangle revolves into the winds of change headed by the broad face of organizational opposition, rather than the innovator’s tip of the arrow. Plan for turbulence; maintain a steady force.

Organizational innovation, as presented in Figure 1, faces two principal challenges to growth and sustainability. Jim Gibbons, CEO of Goodwill Industries delivered the keynote address at the 2013 League for Innovation Conference; he captured innovation’s first challenge in this proverb: “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go with others.”

Gibbons reminds us that the crystal-clear vision of an innovator needs to be shown to a host of others whose commitment is needed to move an idea forward. An innovation needs “the eye of a fly,” multi-faceted vision evolved to escape unanticipated threats. Innovators with tunnel vision are flattened by the swat of inertia.

The second threat to organizational innovation is a rare disease in individual humans but endemic in groups-- synesthesia. Synesthesia, cross-modality sensation perception, is rare, but well-described in Richard Cytowic’s (2003) book “The man who tasted shapes.” The cover of the book portrays a roasted chicken as a display of circles and triangles. The synesthetic individual chronicled in the book translates olfactory and taste information into visual sensations, perceiving bites of fowl as visual stimuli- circles, triangles, reds and yellows.

Hayden Cornner’s (1994) cover illustration for The man who tasted shapes


Lesson Learned: Although rare in individuals, synesthesia-like translations in information transmitted describe the norm in almost all collaborative, group communication settings. The innovator speaks, and members of the innovative community translate ideas into their own perceptual arrays. In turn, the visionary is prone to convert the observations, reservations and suggestions of the team into a vocabulary of ideas resonant with the initial vision. In their earnestness, innovators often lack the ability to appreciate “the reflection in the rear view mirror,” organizational legacies that demand respect even if not conformance. One cannot over-communicate and one cannot too often seek to confirm shared perceptions.

In our next post we will look at lessons about analysis of big data and what outcomes can be achieved in the short-run.

Stephen R. Acker is emeritus professor, The Ohio State University, where he served as founding director of Technology Enhanced Learning and Research. He has served the last five years as Research Director, The Ohio Digital Bookshelf Project, jointly sponsored by OhioLINK and The Ohio Board of Regents. As of July 1st, he can be reached at or in Breckenridge, Colorado.


Add new comment