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Pollinating systems change in higher education through evaluation

by Chad Lubelsky The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

This is an exciting time for RECODE—as the work on campuses across Canada continues to ramp up, we are developing ways in which we can effectively evaluate and measure the impact of this work. Our guiding question has been “what will success look like?”. To help us answer it, we have developed anticipated desired outcomes, but we also recognize there will be many unknowns. RECODE is working within a broader system of higher education that is also complex; accordingly, our evaluation framework has to be designed and adapted in consequence.

Tim Draimin, Social Innovation Generation‘s Executive Director, recently suggested that I read The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. The book explores the role of human nature and human networks in creating change and innovation, positing that to truly affect change we need to better understand the role of ‘keystones’. In biological systems, whether a rainforest or an ocean, keystone species often act as central supporting hubs. They interact in so many valuable ways with so many other parts of the ecosystem, that their presence has a disproportionate impact on the system (pg. 70). Think of the role of the pollinating bee in our food system, and you’ll get an idea of the importance of keystone species.

It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re going to take a social innovation approach to understanding our impact.

Evaluating the contributions that RECODE makes toward shifting an entire system is no easy feat. Even just recognizing that a system has changed can be difficult to monitor. As Kieron Kirkland, the development research manager at Nominet Trust writes in the Guardian, we need evaluation approaches that can detect the unforeseen and unexpected effects of your work. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re going to take a social innovation approach to understanding our impact. This means our evaluation will enable ongoing learning, allowing for real-time changes that inform subsequent activities and areas of intervention.

To assess RECODE’s impact, we will track tangible changes such as the number of courses on social innovation, number of co-curricular activities, number of social ventures created, etc. In addition, we are interested in system-level outcomes, such as the sophistication of the early-stage social entrepreneurship/finance ecosystem. We’ve created a set of learning questions that will help inform our understanding of how objectives and activities are coming together to deliver system-level impact that transcends any one individual activity or output.
Ultimately, our goal is for RECODE to become the “bee of the post-secondary system,” pollinating change by serving as a type of connective tissue or glue for integration, impact, and influence. Evaluation will give us a first reality check as to how far along the road to this destination we have come.

Jul 15, 2015 | Tags: , , , ,