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Innovation at universities – reflections from the Guardian HE Forum

Last week I attended the Guardian HE Forum, an event that brings together senior leaders from UK universities to discuss the key strategic issues facing the HE sector. Funding streams, international student recruitment and student views of the value of higher education all featured on the agenda. But the theme that struck the deepest chord with me was the session on entrepreneurship, innovation and universities.

The discussion was focused on the role universities should play in fostering entrepreneurship and student innovation. The reason it resonated was that it gave me cause to think about how our own company was founded and the ongoing part we have to play in helping academics and students approach teaching and learning in innovative ways that help equip them for an increasingly digitised future employment environment.

Panopto, after all, was spun out of a project that began at Carnegie Mellon University, a lecture capture solution with video search at its heart. Having begun as an internal tool for lecture and classroom recording, it quickly became evident that the system would be beneficial to many other institutions. Now, over a decade later, with over 500 universities using us worldwide (and a host of businesses and government bodies too), we are just one example of the crucial role played by universities in spinning out innovative ideas that can be nurtured into growing companies by bright, switched on students (some of whom are still with the company today).

Thinking more broadly about our role now in fostering innovation, if universities should be, as some of the panelists at the event suggested, responsible for creating an entrepreneurial spirit in their students, they surely have to be innovative in the delivery of their educational materials.

Now, you could argue that lecture capture has become mainstream, so how is this creating an innovative learning space for students? Well, in some respects that’s correct, but what’s interesting is the emerging use cases that start to grow as video and audio recording become more ubiquitous at an institution.

Universities are now using our software to mark students assignments, live stream lectures if they are stuck at home because of adverse weather conditions, flip the classroom, hold virtual open days, record student role plays and practicals and so on.

The boundaries between on and offline blur as blended learning approaches that integrate live and digital experiences start to become more widespread. The adoption of lecture capture, then, has become a springboard for universities to explore a whole raft of other ways to interact with their students. Innovative delivery, I would argue, can be a spur to new ways of thinking about learning, which can surely only help support innovation in the ways in which students are thinking about how their discipline maps to the world outside of the university.

Institutions, then, need to think holistically about how to create an atmosphere of innovation that permeates both content and the forms (technological and otherwise) that they use to communicate that content. The medium, after all, is the message.