Friday, November 20, 2015

Avoiding Innovation Changes Naive

Professor Glover,  head of Universities Australia, is reported to have said that research commercialization and impact should not be included in the criteria for research grants, as this will risk Australia's education export industry. On the contrary, I suggest that not incorporating innovation will result in an irrelevant university sector which produces papers which no one wants to read as that research has no impact on the real world and therefore no one wants to study at.
“It’s short sighted and naive to think we can change the direction of the academic world. Publications are critically important for driving citations and citations are critically important for driving rankings which are critically important for the health of the international education sector, which is worth $18bn this year alone,”  From Innovation changes “naive”: Glover, Julie Hare, The Australian, November 18, 2015
It may seem shocking to some academics to look on university research and publications as a business, but this is a significant export earner for Australia. However, I suggest a change is needed to the metrics used to quantify research output. International student enrollments are not going to increase if Australian universities produce research which is of no practical value. Students want to enroll in a course which makes a difference to the world. Universities should also produce research which gets used and is of practical value. However, measuring usefulness is difficult.

One simple change I suggest to make Australian universities more attuned to innovation and commercialization, is to teach this to students, particularly research students. Australian research students have been discouraged from considering commercialization of their work, by official government and university policies. As an example, if research student wanted to study how to commercialize their research, they had to suspend their research and stop receiving research scholarship while they did so. This should be reversed and research students instead be expected to undertake innovation and entrepreneurial courses as a routine part of their education. This will require a change to the thinking, and the procedures, at our leading universities, which regard formal courses for research students as an anathema.

In his book "Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn and Learn", Paul X. McCarthy points out that "A surprising number of the founders and leaders of many of today's technology giants share one little-known fact in common: they attended Montessori schools."* The Montessori approach emphasizes long blocks of time on one topic, a constructivist approach and trained teachers. While Montessori is thought of as a school teaching technique, a similar approach is applied to some university programs. McCarthy points out Montessori school students are over-represented in computer science university programs and it is perhaps no coincidence that there are similarities between the two in terms of teaching approaches.

World leading universities, not only produce  academic publications based on their research, but also encourage their researchers to apply their results, including by setting up companies. A few months ago I visited Cambridge University (UK). After talking at a roundtable discussion for library staff on how to teach graduates using the Internet, I dropped in on the Cambridge University Center for Entrepreneurial Learning, where students (and staff) learn to commercialize. Cambridge has a problem convincing its elite researchers to worry about commercialization, despite decades (in some cases centuries), of successful commercialization of research.

The Australian National University, along with other universities in Canberra, set up the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) and run competitions, such as Innovation ACT and integrates with degree programs with ANU TechLauncher. With this students work in teams to build a computer application for a real client, or they can opt to do their own company start-up. The students build the computer software and then, as part of Innovation ACT, prepare a business plan and pitch to investors for a company to sell the product.  This model could be emulated by other Australian cities and universities. Perhaps only one in one hundred of the student start-ups will be become a successful business, but the students will learn how to speak to business people about their ideas.

* Note: Thanks to Suneeta Peres da Costa (Author of Homework), for pointing out the quote from McCarthy.

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