With the roll out of the various Covid-19 vaccines, the experience and news headlines lend themselves to analogies to other areas of practice such as innovation in tertiary education. While we are not experts in epidemiology or vaccines we use this article to apply our layperson understanding as a lens on innovation in our everyday practices in the teaching and learning landscape of higher education. Innovations in this specific context must be new, doable, and bring value to the organisation especially the student.

Throughout this piece we do not call out local examples of innovation in great detail and instead would like to use this metaphor to encourage others to reflect on innovation approaches and outcomes in their practices and institutions.

Pfizer: pushing boundaries with new technology can benefit the masses

The concept for the Pfizer vaccine was developed by a Hungarian scientist 40 years ago. In 2020, the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer vaccine won the vaccine race for its ability to seek out and destroy matching viral DNA. Unlike other vaccine technology, it also has a faster production timeline. These benefits changed the current practice of vaccine technology. It was championed by Pfizer and was the first vaccine endorsed by the World Health Organisation.

In universities, we see boundaries pushed in similar ways. For example, an innovative idea is conceived by an innovative pocket within the university. The pocket has a mission to transform or induce some changes to the current practice of teaching and learning. The innovative idea is supported by a university leader and packaged in a way to gain support from others. Sometimes, the innovation sits at the fringe of the current organisation designed to inspire or disrupt and other times the innovative idea enables the university to produce new things to fit new situations, to enable speed and competition within the market, and to carry on during unexpected disruptions.

For example, launching an on-line arm of a university or having a digital learning hub that services the university takes preparation and purposeful planning so that when crises emerge systems, teachers, and students are ready. On-line learning strategies already in place at, for example, Online Education Services, RMIT Online, and Deakin University were ready to benefit the masses – and continue innovating – while other areas of the sector were struggling to catch up in time for students.

AstraZeneca: recycling old technology into new contexts doesn’t always lead to the best possible outcome

The technology behind the AstraZeneca vaccine is based on viral vector technology, which uses a modified version of a different virus (the vector) to deliver important instructions to our cells. The benefits they reaped for taking old technology and applying it to a new context was that it was more rugged and didn’t have to stay frozen like Pfizer. But as we observe in the 24-hour news cycle, the century-old technology is not for everyone in the modern day. It is the one vaccine that we hear about time again for causing blood clots which has resulted in additional restrictions overtime including the advice for it be used for only those older than 50.

A classic example of this in the university context is observed in the approach to on-line learning design where we see powerpoints, lecture recordings, and PDF’s simply uploaded to the LMS for students to download and view from off campus. While this approach works, it is not as effective as a purposefully designed online experience, and can result in students wanting to return to face to face experiences.

Uni Queensland vaccine: innovation requires taking risks and learning from others

The Australian Government and Queensland Government took a risk by giving $17m for the development of the UQ vaccine – a risk that if it had paid-out, most of our country could have been vaccinated by now. However, the outcome of the UQ vaccine was that it gave false positive HIV tests to the vaccinated population which resulted in fears that people had HIV, when they did not, and undermined confidence in the vaccine. The Prime Minister was quick to shut down the UQ vaccination trial and UQ moved on to mRNA technology.

For years, we have witnessed universities try to do everything in-house, and in silos such as schools and faculties – from learning design, to teaching, to student support, to integrating industry experiences. However, in the last five years we have witnessed these partnerships become a reality through co-creation and delivery. Universities who are learning through partnering are able to scale their approaches faster.

As we co-write this piece from our respective homes during Melbourne’s fourth lockdown, we hope the future of teaching and learning in higher education moves with enough strategy and speed, so that as a sector, we don’t innovate only to end up in the same situation.

May your approaches to innovation benefit the masses, achieve the best possible outcome, and may you learn from others along the way.


Dr Dawn Gilmore, Director of Quality and Enhancement, RMIT, [email protected]

Dr Chinh Nguyen, Senior Consultant, Online Programs Manager, Curio, [email protected]


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