The Innovation Game

The Innovation Game

Innovation is not something that just happens by accident. You must be dedicated to the work and strive for change if you want to become innovative. 

For Aeron Zentner, innovation comes from being willing to be unique and challenge the status quo. 


“When you want to make change, you've got to remember you can't do everything that everyone else is doing. You know, no one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”

In this episode of The Higher Edge we got to speak with the Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, Analytics, Accessibility, Accreditation, Planning and Grant Development for Coastline Community College, Aeron Zentner. A multi-campus district that's in the heart of Orange County, California, Coastline has been a leader in online education for over 46 years, having first been founded in 1976 as the distance learning college for the Coast Community College district.

Talking with Zentner, we learned about the future of higher education research and how we understand data, a fun take on what really qualifies as innovation today, and how researchers can disrupt higher education.

The Future of Research 

Coming from a non-traditional background, Zentner was never surrounded by experienced college students, the terminology of higher education, or the kind of backgrounds typically associated with college success. 

“It all really opened my eyes to a brand new world when I came into higher education, just as a student, worker, all the way through where I'm at today. Now I try to ask the question: how do we be inclusive of others here, their diverse perspectives, and share that [kind of] information that can really help people engage with one another.” 

One of the main things Zentner loves about working in higher education is the diversity. He likes that everyone is unique in their own ways and how they bring that experience to their roles. 

While working in Higher education, Zentner stresses that you don’t have to have the word data in your title to use information and create great ideas. 

“A lot of the time when we talk about data, we think you have to have that in your title. But what we found is that data belongs to everyone. I just think of it as just a component of research, where research is very important to help [everyone] move and grow the pool of knowledge.”

Everyone should be able to pursue knowledge in their own way without feeling like they aren’t qualified to do research or keep from making suggestions about data just because they don't have a data background. 

Speaking about traditional research versus activated research, Zentner says that traditional research is the first step to analyzing data, while activated research is the thing that really makes us think.

“Sure, traditional research is the foundation of analyzing data. But ”activated research” is analytics [that help us look] at things in ways that help us  make better decisions. And it doesn't just belong to the decision-makers, it belongs to all of us.”

While working with data over many years, Zentner has found that working together and using data in a cross-disciplinary way can help positively impact students, employees, and the community as a whole. 

“What are the factors that can influence the total experience for our students, our employees in our community? It's time to break down the walls or barriers between us,” and say, “ How do we really integrate this together?”

This idea of working together no matter your background is something that Zentner really emphasizes when working with data. 

“I think one of the things that really stood out to me is that it's an emerging trend, and maybe not just in California but in other schools - that marrying data to ideas doesn't just come from a reporting office, it's now a part of the conversation at every table across the institution.”

Moving Beyond Data Informed to Data Empowered

While we use research every day in our schools, academics, and even just daily life, the way we conduct research continues to evolve and grow. Zenter suggests even the way we look at and understand the role of data has evolved over time. 

For example, he remembers a time early in his career when he was comfortable using the term “data-driven,” until a colleague called him out on it.

“Someone's like, ‘Data doesn't drive anything, it informs.’ That whole concept just just hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was like, ‘You're right.’

The reality is that data is not behind the wheel. Data is an informant, not a driver - we’re the drivers of the decisions.”

Understanding the different roles data can take helps us understand how we can use data in the future to better our understanding of our research. Zentner suggests that the future of data is more than something that drives us to a decision, or informs us on what decision to make, but rather data helps empower us through the use of knowledge to create and innovate. 

“That’s really where we're headed in from data driven where data drives every decision we do now with prescriptive analytics, to data informed, to say X, Y and Z s around what do you want to do, to now data empowered and the concept of data is for everyone.” 

Data empowerment puts people first, where data driven and data informed create atmospheres where data is driving or informing our decisions, data empowerment flips the script and allows data users to make their own decisions with the knowledge they gain from their data. 

Zentner goes on to say that “knowledge builds action, and action builds change.” Once we empower people with knowledge they will act on what they have just learned, and use their new found knowledge to create and innovate. 

Cards Against Innovation

For Zentner, it's extremely important to be enthusiastic about innovation but also to understand the work that it takes to be innovative. 

“When we think about innovation, the question that comes up for me is, ‘Are you ready?’ You know, everyone's like, ‘Yeah, let's go!’, and then when it comes to the work, like, ‘Whoa, that's not our culture. We can't question the norm. What do you mean?’

My research team and I published an article on this. We looked at literature over time, and what the common themes were that emerged throughout innovation models, and asked ourselves, ‘What really leads to innovation?’”

Now this concept of what really leads to innovation was something that Zentner and his team thought was something very difficult to easily define. Innovation does not just come from changing one thing or designing something new. 

Innovation is something that really changes the whole way we do something. To innovate we need to understand that the old ways of doing something really just don't work anymore and because of that the whole system of how we do things needs to change. 

With this Zentner and his team came up with the idea to design a game that would be more engaging than a powerpoint or lecture and could create a fun atmosphere around innovation and change. They created this game after doing extensive research into familiar areas of higher education that could use change. 

They called this game “Cards Against Innovation.”

“During a college-wide event, we took the game out and had everybody go through and play at different tables. There was a lot of laughter. But at the end we had a conversation to say, ‘This is really an awareness tool to ask ourselves, how are we behaving?’

It really helped for self-reflection. And we even had board members play this, and they had a blast! Then we ended up taking it up to a statewide conference and doing it there.” 

“Cards Against Innovation” is played similarly to “Cards Against Humanity,” where players are given a number of cards to choose from, and one card is pulled out of a separate pile to be the prompt. Players can look through the cards in their hand and choose which they feel fits best with the prompt, which fits the worst with the prompt, or which they think is the funniest. After all players have placed down their cards, everyone votes on which card they like the most, and that player gets the point. 

Zentner chose to base his game off of Cards Against Humanity because the appeal of Cards Against Humanity is that every game is unique. The amount of different card combinations is endless and because of that every time you play the game you have no idea what cards you are going to get, or what funny combinations you can make. 

Instead of creating a report, Zentner decided to create a game for members of higher education to make their own decisions in a fun and funny way. 

“I think this game became very self-reflecting, because the reality is you could have sent out that publication report like, ‘Hey, you want to read this report with all these tables and charts? Not Really.’ I think that's the thing of how we bring it to life and put it in their shoes.”

Being able to bring innovation to life is something very difficult to do when giving a presentation. When you have people engaging with one another and playing a fun game about fun and silly things they see on a daily basis while working in higher education you start to get people thinking about what they could do to start innovating in their own schools. 

Usually it's not that easy to see where we can innovate when we are not looking at opportunities where innovation presents itself. Through Cards Against Innovation Zentner suggests that opportunities for innovation are everywhere in higher education it's just usually harder to notice when we're in the hustle and bustle of working in higher education.

Disrupting Higher Education

Even after creating an entire game to challenge higher education leaders to think more about opportunities where innovation presents itself in their own schools, Zentner is still looking for ways to disrupt higher education. For Zentner, one of the ways we can disrupt higher education is to find out what data we DON’T have. 

“The ability to  leverage the [knowledge base] of our friends and colleagues and also public data through a variety of entities and systems, can lead us to look beyond just some student characteristics data to look at behavioral data, [and even] environmental data around the students.”

Being able to engage with this other data can help us understand what our friends and colleagues are up to and how we can help, it can help us understand lives of our students better, and it can help us stay informed on what's happening outside our campuses to understand what other factors might be affecting our students. Being able to understand the whole student experience will allow colleges and universities to create a better and more engaging student experience. 

Empowering others with the help of data is something Zentner thinks we can all do with the right mind set. While working at his local college Zentner is trying to make learning about data analytics and research more meaningful and applicable to everyone so that everyone has equal opportunity to understand and become knowledgeable through the use of data.

“The reality is that data's a field of creativity, of critical thinking and synthesis that applies to everyone, no matter your role. Starting with that and inviting everyone who would like to participate to come through this program in a cross functional manner, to interact and engage with each other and ask the question, what is inquiry? What are the questions we're trying to answer? How do you define the right question? How do you know?

With these questions you create space for insight without being so technical while giving everybody the ability to really be creative. Start at that point and then introduce a few traditional research approaches, but really put it in an applicable manner that asks, 'How does this relate to your job and how can you utilize this data to drive change?'”

For Aeron Zentner, data is something for everyone. His goal is to create an environment in which everyone can study and learn about data in their own way.

The Higher Edge

To learn more about Aeron Zentner check out our interview with him on The Higher Edge podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and our website.


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