iPad and the Risk of 'Sustaining Innovations'

The risk of the iPad for higher education is that the device will prove a "sustaining innovation" in learning technology.

January 27, 2010

The risk of the iPad for higher education is that the device will prove a "sustaining innovation" in learning technology.

Sustaining innovations, as explained by Michael Horn in his amazing talk at the 2009 EDUCAUSE ECAR Symposium, increase the quality of the service or product but also drive up the cost. Higher education has been moving through cycles of sustaining innovation, where improvements in facilities, amenities and technology have increased the fidelity of the campus experience while simultaneously driving costs (and tuition) faster than inflation.

The iPad could drive a new round of sustaining innovation as institutions seek to design specialized campus and educational apps for the new platform. We will want to design these learning and campus apps, and invest in tools that allow our university content to be accessed by the iPad, for the best of reasons. These reasons include the desire to stay relevant to our students' experience, to compete for their scarce attention, and to use the iPad to reach multiple learning styles.

We will see the ability of the iPad to digitize curricular texts and aggregate curricular media as progress. We will be excited that students will be able to easily sync up a syllabus' worth of course content, consuming the materials via the iPad's gorgeous interface. We will be excited by the possibilities of students engaging in formative assessments and collaborative work (wikis/blogs/discussions) through the browser, without the need to sacrifice the fidelity of reading (iBooks) or media viewing.

The possibilities for learning, student interaction and enhanced campus services that the iPad unleashes will all come at a price. Nothing about a tool as wonderful as the iPad will lower the cost of constructing or delivering education. We will need to invest in buying iPads, developing apps for iPads, and experimenting with new pedagogies and training around iPads. Perhaps the iPad will be a disruptive force for lifelong learners, as they will be able to sync up the lecture content from iTunesU, pair it with book content, and than engage in discussions of the material (through the browser) with other autodidacts.

It might be unpopular to say right now (and I'm sympathetic to the Edupunk movement), but an argument can be made that the LMS was a disruptive innovation for higher education. The LMS allowed, for the first time, hybrid and online learning to scale. Prior to the LMS any pedagogical innovation enabled by technology required custom development and a high degree of faculty technical proficiency. Faculty could make course Web pages, but they needed to know HTML. Assessment and collaboration tools could be built, but they were built one-by-one and by hand. The low technical threshold necessary to maintain and utilize and LMS opened the door to pedagogical innovation and a disruption of the status quo higher ed model. We are still struggling to walk through that door. (And yes, we can and should be debating if Web 2.0 tools have supplanted or complemented the LMS as catalysts for disruption -- but that is the topic of another discussion).

How can something as uncool and unsexy as the LMS be disruptive for higher ed, while something as cool, sexy and elegant as the iPad only be sustaining? And what do we do with the recognition that no matter how wonderful a sustaining innovation can be, the end result is to increase costs as quality also rises?

Do we stop adopting sustaining innovations?

Do we only innovate with learning technologies that can increase quality (active learning) while decreasing costs?

I have no idea, but while we figure all this out I'm totally excited to get my hands on a shiny new iPad. How about you?


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