Timothy Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who is recognized as the creator of the World Wide Web, once described innovation as serendipity. “You don’t know what people will make,” he said.
Berners-Lee’s observation effectively describes the serendipity of innovation and risk taken by York University when in 2010, it invested $2.5 million in 39 projects focused on creating innovation in teaching, learning and the student experience.
Known as the Academic Innovation Fund (AIF), all of the projects funded were conceived inside the University by faculty, staff and students. The first year of results proved to be so successful that the University invested another $2.5 million to allow 27 projects to continue, along with 13 new projects.
“It was quite a risk, really,” says Professor Susan Vail, York University’s associate vice-president, teaching and learning, who is responsible for AIF oversight, “and by all accounts, the Academic Innovation Fund is creating a ground-swell of activity that is inspiring lasting change.”
Susan Vail, York University’s associate vice-president, teaching and learning
The University’s investment in leading its own evolution is a success, says Vail, because of the vision of former Provost Patrick Monahan, who created the AIF in 2010 to advance York University’s institutional priorities, and the dedication of the project leads and management team. They are voluntarily working on their projects in addition to their own day-to-day responsibilities. “The project leads have done an outstanding job of moving forward their innovative activities through careful planning and the energy that comes from a sense of ownership,” she says.
Now midway through its second year, Vail says she still gets “goose bumps” as she watches project teams reach out to other faculties, departments and units to share their findings with colleagues. Those goose bumps are becoming a permanent fixture, she jokes, because through serendipity three distinct systems are emerging from what first seemed to be a collage of ideas and projects. The emerging systems are building capacity within the University to integrate technology into the curriculum, establish ways to offer experiential education opportunities to students, and through a pan-University collaborative effort, enhance the first-year experience for students who are new to the University.
This significant investment made by York University into its community is yielding enormous benefits, says Vail. The emerging systems will offer students a positive transition into University that is supported by a network of initiatives geared to helping them succeed and thrive during that first critical year of studies.
As they move through their degrees, students will experience a teaching and learning environment centred on good pedagogy and enhanced by technology. Many will have the opportunity to apply the theoretical knowledge they’ve gained in a real-world setting through courses that offer experiential education. If it hadn’t been for the AIF, says Vail, York University would have been slower to produce such dramatic change. “The AIF has been such an innovative pod for us: it provides a safe place where people, with the support of the University’s leadership, can test ideas and improve the learning experience of our students.”