Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Will Innovation Come From?

I have just come from a learning trajectories conference associated with the DELTA Project at North Carolina State University. This conference was supported by the Pearson Foundation. At this event, there was a lot of talk about innovation in how and what we assess, including talk about so-called “innovative” items. Those are items that might use simulation, multimedia and figural response item formats. The Race to the Top consortia want to hire companies to construct these innovative items that will be freely shared across states. But where will innovations in assessment items and tasks come from?

There are people who do research on innovations and where innovations come from. Consider Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at MIT. In the book, The Sources of Innovation, von Hippel points out that companies that manufacture in a field were innovators in that field if the companies could expect the innovation to become a commercially successful product that would result in an attractive return. These innovative companies gained an enhanced position in the market. But the research by von Hippel raises a question: What motivates companies to invest in developing innovative items if those innovations will then be given away by the consortia to the states? Where is the enhanced market position? Are the consortia taking the best approach to ensuring innovation in how and what we assess?

Some other researchers on innovation, Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani, writing about outside innovation might have an answer. They say that when the technology and the customers’ needs are well understood a company can do internal research and development. But opening up innovation to a collaborative community can work better when the technology and design approaches have not been established and the innovation involves cumulative knowledge, continually building on past advances.

These collaborative communities tend to develop knowledge-sharing and dissemination mechanisms, and converge on common norms with a culture of sharing and cooperation, broad agreement on a technology paradigm, and common technical jargon to support productive collaboration. A good example of this is Apple’s iPhone. Thousands of outside software developers have written complementary applications (the apps we all love so much) that have made the iPhone the center of a thriving business ecosystem. Another but somewhat different example is the Semiconductor Research Corp., a Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit consortium that includes members from industry, the government, and academia. The Semiconductor Research Corp was established in 1982 to accumulate fundamental knowledge in silicon technology and semiconductor manufacturing.

As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, yeah, you just might find you get what you need!” I don’t know the best way to guarantee we get the innovation we want in how and what we assess. But after meeting and listening to the researchers and policymakers at the learning trajectories conference, a way to get what we need might be a partnership between companies like Pearson, the government, and academia.

Paul Nichols, Ph.D.
Vice President
Psychometric & Research Services
Assessment & Information

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