Innovation: A Library / Technology Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve wanted to post on this topic since 2012, but never got around to it until now.  Back then I was a co-investigator on the MISO Survey team.  If you aren’t familiar with the MISO Survey, go, check it out, it’s good stuff if you work in higher education library or technology organizations.   Don’t forget to ask about the secret sauce: MISO’s student response rates are unlike anything you’ve seen in the last decade.  And comparing your quantitative results to your past results or to any institution(s) that have participated in the last 5 years is powerfully informative.

One of the fun things you get to do as a member of the team is to perform analysis against the national set of data.  As of this past year, 112 institutions of all types have participated, though the majority are still liberal arts institutions, among whom the survey was born.  We’ve looked at things like how tenure status, age, or discipline affects perceptions and use of library and IT services; we tracked trends – some of whom have come and gone since the survey was born in 2005-06.

There’s a question in the survey that had always interested me.  It’s asked both in terms of how important it is, and how satisfied faculty are.  For satisfaction, the full question is “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with the following resources and services,” and in the list if a school chooses to ask is an item, “support for your innovative ideas.

I love the question because it’s not specifically a library or IT question.  While it comes in a survey about libraries and information technology support in higher education, faculty answer the question from their own context (and yes, the MISO survey not only tests new questions against all constituencies at multiple institutions, they test the full survey every four years to make sure the questions are still being read the same way as in years past).

Innovation is a buzzword.  These days it seems orphaned if you don’t put the word ‘disruptive’ in front of it.  But innovation is important, especially to faculty.  So in 2012, the MISO Survey team looked at schools who asked the question about innovation – that year, we had 22 institutions who asked.  The University of Richmond was among the 22 schools.  Looking at the means, we were able to divide faculty at the 22 institutions into 9 institutions with faculty who were “somewhat satisfied” with support for their innovative ideas and 13 institutions who were “satisfied” with support for their innovative ideas.  On a 4-point Likert scale, “somewhat satisfied” institutions had a mean on this question of 3.18, while “satisfied” institutions had an average mean of 3.57.  The differences were statistically significant.

This is where my question came in.  I was curious if we could find out what libraries and IT organizations can do that help faculty feel more supported when it comes to their innovative ideas.  Looking across the other questions in the survey, I proposed a hierarchy of needs that would have to be met if faculty were to be more satisfied with support for innovation.  The team worked with items in the survey to place them into four categories: infrastructure, support, communication, information & technology fluencies, with innovation at the top.  My thinking was that for faculty to be happier overall with library and technology support for innovation, these different levels of resources and support would have to have higher satisfaction ratings too.

2012 hierarchy KJTC

The team identified 29 infrastructure resources and services in the survey (like help desk, course management system, library databases, and the online library catalog) where satisfaction was measured.  Satisfaction was statistically significantly higher at the “satisfied” innovator schools for 28 out of 29 items.  Dave Consiglio, Director of Assessment, Learning Spaces, and Special Projects at Bryn Mawr College, is the statistician and the brains behind the creation of the MISO Survey.  When he saw these results, he said that the likelihood that these 28 items would have been favored by the “satisfied” schools by random chance would be like being struck by lightning across five consecutive days.  So this was not likely chance.

We found similar results for support: 16 of 16 items demonstrated higher faculty satisfaction at the “satisfied” innovative faculty schools.  For communication, 14 of 14 items had higher satisfaction means at the “satisfied” innovative faculty schools when compared to the “somewhat satisfied” schools.

The story changed when we examined fluencies.  The MISO Survey asks faculty (and students and staff in their respective surveys) how informed, skilled, or interested in learning, they feel with regard to 53 items.  Results were all over the map.  The team never came to a conclusion as to why the results broke in the different directions when it came to information and technology fluencies.  For different items, “satisfied” faculty did or did not consider themselves more skilled than their “somewhat satisfied” colleagues.  The same was true with regard to questions about how informed faculty felt, or when we asked how interested faculty were to learn more about information or technology.  One suggestion pointed to the survey itself: for the infrastructure, support, and communications questions, the results were faculty ratings of satisfaction.  For skills and interest in learning, faculty are instead being asked to rate themselves and not the support or organizations that promote learning.  So perhaps the MISO Survey doesn’t ask the right questions for my idea to be quantitatively analyzed.

So let me fall back to telling the theory narratively.  I believe that in order for faculty to feel supported by library and technology organizations with regard to innovation, they first have to have a sufficiently robust infrastructure.  If the network is up and down frequently, it’s hard to get started on a new idea.  Support is what’s needed next: technology doesn’t always work, and much of it needs near-constant support for it to be useful to faculty.  Then comes communication which begins with things like knowing when systems may be unavailable to the degree to which faculty feel they have input to decisions made by library and IT organizations that affect them.  Finally, if innovation is to happen, faculty need to know how to use the information or technology that’s available to them.  They have to know that something is possible before they can connect their disciplinary knowledge to resources and services and realize that an innovative learning project is possible, or a new direction in their research or creativity is possible.  Information and IT fluencies may come through self-study, but they are also supported by professionals in library and IT organizations.  Conversations with instructional technologists or library liaisons may provide the opportunity for faculty to make connections that positively impact learning or scholarship.

Because we weren’t able to see significant differences between “somewhat satisfied” and “satisfied” innovators at 22 campuses based on the data that is available, this idea of mine is something that can only be a suggestion.  But if what evidence MISO was able to corroborate makes sense to you, perhaps the final leap of maintaining an environment where faculty can increase their knowledge of information and technology isn’t too far to go.  And if you are willing to think the hierarchy has some legs, think about the implications for how your institution provides library and IT services.

How empowered do your library and technology organizations make faculty feel when it comes to innovation?  Look to your infrastructure, to your support, to the multiple levels of communication that are necessary, and consider fluencies in information and technology as the final pieces that can help lead faculty to a break through in their work that’s using information or technology.  While I’m not suggesting that innovation is only possible with library or IT resources and services, I am suggesting that higher ed library and IT organizations look at the hierarchy and see how satisfied their faculty are with elements that may lead to innovation.

As an instructional technologist, I see it as my responsibility to sustain an environment where faculty, students, and staff can learn more about technology.  While the book is out of date, I suggest you take a peak at page four of the National Resource Council’s Being Fluent with Information Technology (free PDF download of this 1999 book).  In a liberal arts college setting, technology skills are likely not a part of the campus curriculum.  But the principles can be updated and incorporated into class projects and made available to college communities outside the curriculum, benefiting faculty and students alike.  Just as librarians have made a stand for information literacy / information fluency / etc., I believe that instructional technologists should be advocates for IT fluency on their campuses.  Who connects better with faculty and can make the case?

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