Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

July 20, 2018 Tony Bates


In my first post in this series, I looked at the role of accreditation agencies in blocking innovation. I suggested that while they may seriously inhibit disruptive innovation, accreditation agencies have not prevented online learning for credit from becoming widely established in higher education in a relatively short space of time (15 years or so), at least in North America, and this in fact is a major innovation in teaching in higher education.

Indeed, protecting students from wasting money on disruptive experiments with a high risk of failure may in fact be more important for accreditation agencies in the semi-privatised American higher education system, where you pay first then discover later whether it was worth it. 

Thus there are other, more important factors, than accreditation agencies that inhibit innovation in higher education. Often, faculty get the blame for obstructing change, and this certainly can be a factor. But this is sometimes unfair; there are also other factors inhibiting innovation that are just as important.

In particular, many universities and colleges have long histories, and over that period they have invested heavily in older technologies and systems that just won’t go away. These legacy systems are one of the biggest inhibitors of innovation.


Brock Commons Tallwood House at UBC – currently the tallest mass timber building in the world—which opened in July 2017.

I go up to the UBC campus about once or twice a year these days. Each time, it is unrecognisable from my previous visit due to new building construction. (Students posted a sign on a footpath diversion which said ‘UBC is the only place in the universe where the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.’).

Not all this building is classroom space. For instance the Tallwood Tower is a student residence, much needed in a city where the price of housing is so high. But if you are building 17 storey student residences, and have acres of lecture halls and classrooms, you are not going to get rid of campus-based teaching any time soon. The issue then is: are the new buildings suitably designed for digital learning? But old buildings far outnumber new ones, no matter how quickly you build. These old classrooms and lecture halls, with their raked seating, podiums for lecturers at the front, very much determine what kind of teaching will take place.

Older technologies

But it is not just traditional campus-based universities which have legacy systems that inhibit innovation. Indeed, what were once ‘disruptive’ institutions themselves when created can easily become stuck within their original legacy systems. The experiences in recent years of the UK Open University, Athabasca University, the Télé-université (Téluq), and UNISA, where print has been the core medium of teaching, are good examples.

Although these institutions have some of the world’s leading experts on online and digital learning, changing the core teaching design for the bulk of their academic programs has proved a major challenge. Not only do these institutions have an army of print editors and graphic designers, but in particular faculty in these institutions, many of whom have been there since the institution was founded, are embedded in the culture of print design. It will probably take a new generation of faculty, and probably a separate autonomous unit focused on digital learning, for these monolithic institutions to adapt successfully to the digital world, and some may not have enough time to do this.


Another legacy is the governance structure of universities and colleges. This varies considerably from institution to institution, but in many institutions, the person responsible for strategic decisions about the direction of teaching and learning is not qualified or experienced in online or digital learning (or often management, for that matter). They are usually mainline academics who have become AVPs Teaching and Learning or some similar position. This may be necessary for them to influence other academics, and they may have the sense to build a strong and close working relationship with the Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre, and/or the Centre for Online Learning, but too often decisions about teaching direction are made without sound pedagogical or technological understanding. The fall-back position as a result tends to be to prioritise innovation in classroom teaching.

Furthermore I noticed when doing the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education that about one third of all the VPs Academic changed during the year. The ‘normal’ term of a Vice President in Canada is about five years if all goes well, and sometimes it may be renewed for another five years. But in practice, if one third are changing each year that actual term is more likely closer to three years.

Why is this an inhibitor of innovation? I have been closely involved fairly recently with two universities where the Provost’s Office has initiated a strategy for flexible or online learning, but then either the President or the VP Academic has left, and everything stops for at least two years until the new appointments find their feet – if you are lucky. In one case the new VP Academic was not interested in continuing the online development so everything just stopped, except, of course, for the brave individual instructors who wanted to innovate without any institutional support. Ironically, some level of continuity in strategy is necessary for innovation to take hold.

Learning management systems

This series started as a result of my questioning why we are still using the LMS more than twenty years after its initial development. This will be the subject of the third post in this series, but again, once an institution is heavily invested in not just the LMS in principle, but even in a specific LMS, there is a very high cost of change.

The value of the LMS is its institutional convenience. It provides a centrally managed, secure environment in which to house a course. Any other approach to using technology for online or digital learning has this massive legacy hurdle to overcome. This will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Lack of an innovation strategy for teaching

How serious is the management factor as an inhibitor of innovation in teaching since in practice, most innovation starts from the bottom up? However, as Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation have demonstrated, few institutions have a strategy for expanding an innovative practice beyond the initial instructor who developed the new approach.

There are several necessary elements for a successful innovation strategy for teaching:

  • ideally a general institutional vision or strategy for teaching in the future to provide a framework for priorities in the allocation of resources and to encourage change generally in teaching;
  • initial resources to encourage instructors to try something new, to compensate for the extra time and to provide specialist advice, where needed;
  • a systematic, independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the innovation, in terms of learning, increased flexibility for students, etc;
  • a process to share the results of the innovation with other instructors both within and beyond the department;
  • a process for deciding on the wider adoption of the innovation within or beyond a department;
  • further evaluation of the more general adoption.

Without this or some other strategy for supporting innovative teaching, it will remain isolated and will not affect the overall  innovation of teaching in the institution.

What can you do about legacy systems?

This is a tough question, and more likely to be best answered by those used to migrating computer systems, such as the Canadian government’s Phoenix pay system (not), but here are some of my suggestions:

  • make sure you have a strategic plan for teaching and learning: this should not only identify legacy systems that are inhibiting change, and suggest new, more appropriate systems, but also suggest strategies for gradually replacing or changing them so the new systems are fit for the new purpose;
  • encourage a skunk-works unit that is free to experiment with new tools and approaches on a limited scale, but within a strategy for implementing more widely successful innovations from the skunk-works;
  • develop new parallel systems so that for a period, both the old and new systems are running together, to give time to make the transition and train people in the new system; this should have a clear timeline and schedule, e,.g. the transition should be complete within five years;
  • ensure any new systems or tools are flexible and easily replaceable, to accommodate for future changes;
  • change your management structure so that those in charge of legacy systems that need to be replaced are not influencing decisions about new systems – which they will try to block;
  • look carefully at costs and budgets, so that any large future investments, e.g. in IT systems or hardware, enable future flexibility, and that investments in outdated legacy systems are gradually phased out;
  • make sure there is some financial flexibility for encouraging the adoption of new tools and processes that might replace more expensive legacy systems – for instance, rather than build a new campus or building, would online delivery be a better investment?

All this makes me think that it would be a lot easier to design new institutions from scratch – but then they would soon become outdated themselves. The trick is to build a flexible, dynamic organisation that can accommodate new ideas, approaches and tools without throwing everything else out of the bucket. In other words, in a university or college, protect the core mission of knowledge creation and dissemination, but be prepared to change constantly how you do this.

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