Enablement, Not Disruption, Spurs Change in Higher Ed

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Exciting innovations are taking place in higher education, but they’re rarely (if ever) the result of an overnight success. Years of work — securing grant funding, conducting intensive research, assembling teams, and preparing for experimentation and production — precede these often publicly lauded efforts.

If one were to draw higher education in caricature, in terms of its speed and dynamism, it might actually be illustrated as a lumbering elephant, or a large, dawdling tortoise, than a lightning-fast cheetah or even a rocket ship. (That’s right: slow and steady can transform the world.)

It may not come as a total surprise, then, that the most successful types of systemic change — the shifting of large-scale organizational processes, structures and approaches within colleges and universities — are happening not at breakneck speed or via complete transformation, but at a pace and style that better integrates with institutions’ ongoing operations. A recent Edsurge opinion piece by columnist Sean Gallagher argued that they’re not the Disruptive Innovations as coined by Christensen Institute. Gallagher identifies the most successful changes as ‘enabling partners’ (what Christensen has termed Sustaining Innovations).

A Note on Disruption

The theory of Disruptive Innovation has been misidentified and misinterpreted as the kind of rabble-rousing innovation that hastily and messily elicits major change. Here, the Christensen Institute provides its definition:

“The theory of disruptive innovation explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.”

Take, for example, the modularized nature of some competency-based education (CBE) programs. Stacking degree courses in a way that suits each student’s skills and experience while providing incremental credentials along the way--at a pace governed by the student--represents a disruptive innovation. Although CBE is especially well suited to specific populations (‘nontraditional’ students who also work fulltime, have caregiving responsibilities, etc.), the model’s combination of convenience, simplicity and affordability have lent it significant momentum in recent years.

Conversely, sustaining innovations realign or rethink the use of internal resources to grapple with existing inefficiencies and improve students’ experiences both within and outside of the classroom. These innovations don’t sound as alluring as the kinds of fresh technologies and approaches that totally overhaul systems. They are probably more important to us, however, because they have been embraced by higher ed and are meeting or exceeding expectations within it.

Change is an Inside Job

Edtech companies that enable institutions to provide enhanced services for current student populations are making strides in the marketplace. They’re not the antithetical organizations seeking to replace or totally upend higher ed; the ones spurring the biggest changes are working within it.

Firms that provide technologies or services that both augment colleges’ and universities’ existing offerings and build value for its target audiences (students, and, to a lesser degree, parents) are finding a viable future with institutional partners. The makers of lecture capture technologies, learning management systems, or student information systems aren’t staking their business value upon claims of disruption. If anything, their marketing efforts point toward ‘ease of use’ and process streamlining.

Enabling smoother sailing rather than rocking the proverbial boat is, apparently, a smart business move.

The New Learning Landscape

With few exceptions, the four-year baccalaureate degree remains the cornerstone of professional credentials.

Though a variety of companies have, in recent years, began offering hands-on, practical, and often remote instruction for tech-centric skills, the advantages they offer in terms of a shorter time to job market entry aren’t yet outweighing the perceived value of a traditional degree.

Although such organizations offer a disruptive innovation that is cheaper, simpler, more accessible, and (let’s face it), typically more convenient than investing four years of one’s life into the pursuit of a degree, they aren’t anywhere close to catching up with colleges and universities.

Revenue generated by coding bootcamps and microcredentials represent a paltry $550 million combined. Dismissing that number might seem slightly irresponsible; however, when compared to the $600 billion higher education market, it’s clear that these organizations aren’t currently poised for global domination. So while the General Assemblies of the world might be offering an inexpensive credential and applicable skillset for industry, they don’t yet threaten the existence of higher education. If anything, they serve as signposts for the future, and those in the ‘ivory tower’ would be wise to pay attention.

Gallagher cited an interesting opportunity for entrepreneurs to now serve as true partners to university teams, rather than being thought of as vendors. A future where private industry influences and works alongside higher education without a major overhaul could prove to be the kind of sustaining innovation we’ve been looking for all along.

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.