Innovation in higher education, I sometimes think, is a bit like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
Every six months or so, as some new conference or other on the future of higher education heaves into view, I’ll get a call asking if I can list any and all recent innovations in higher education. The people on the other end of the line seem to feel that these innovations must surely be out there, so they make phone calls looking for them. But they always seem disappointed when I resort to listing the usual suspects: online universities, open educational resources, commercial ventures looking to partner with institutions. That’s not innovation, the people on the other end of the line seem to be saying. And in many respects, I agree with them. We haven’t yet seen anything truly game-changing, have we?
In recent months, the focus on innovation in higher education has turned to “disruptive innovation,” that concept originally formulated over a decade ago by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen to describe change and innovation across numerous industries, but which he has more recently begun applying to education. Now everybody wants to know where the disruptive innovations in higher education are hiding.
For his part, Christensen points to online learning. But even by the standards established by Christensen’s own theory (where disruptive innovations are easier to use, cheaper, and serve new audiences), the case for online learning as a disruptive innovation is equivocal.
Is it a simpler, easier-to-use product? In some respects, but not all.
Is it less expensive to deliver? Outside of a few grant-program case studies, not particularly; the potential may be there, but it has yet to be fully realized.
Is it reaching a new audience? Probably, yes, but the evidence is mostly indirect and approximate.
Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t actually see much in the way of real innovation in higher education, and Christensen understands this. Incumbent leaders in mature industries engage in what Christensen calls “sustaining innovation” – the development of new features and benefits that make a product or service more useful, but not dramatically so. Think, for example, of the addition of a camera on the iPad2. With an increase in benefits, prices typically rise as well. What keeps pricing in balance in most industries, however, are those disruptive innovations – think of the personal computers that supplanted the mainframes decades ago. These cheaper and easier to use tools attract new audiences to the category and refashion the economics of the industry’s business model.
While colleges and universities may well engage in some sustaining innovations (the high-rise dormitories, the state-of-the-art fitness centers, the not-entirely-mythical rock climbing walls, not mention the world-class science labs and other high-tech investments), the fact is that they face little in the way of disruptive innovation because they have a lock on the market – it’s called accreditation – and thus there’s little opportunity for new entrants to come in and offer something less expensive or simpler to use.
To my mind, if you’re looking for an innovation opportunity, technology is just a part of the story. The real innovation – in price, in ease of use, in access – will occur when our colleges and universities face some real competition, and that will only come when we allow some new, entrepreneurial providers into the market.
If you want innovation, I say, remove the barriers.
To that end, I’d like to propose that the U.S. Department of Education establish a new “demonstration program,” not unlike the Distance Learning Demonstration Program of the past. That former program allowed institutions that delivered a majority of their programs online to distribute Title IV funds. Twenty-four institutions – a mix of nonprofits and for-profits – participated in the program. Along the way, we learned something important about the potential for scale within online learning; and today, one in four college students has taken at least one course online.
Now we need something a little different, but based on the same model – call it the “Innovation Demonstration Program.” In this case, the program will charter new organizations to offer degrees and distribute Title IV funds – even if they lack accreditation. That has the potential to open up real innovation within multiple segments of the marketplace.
Commercial organizations that offer tutoring services, curriculum, or learning technologies could get into the degree granting business and even make federal financial aid available to their students.
At the same time, established institutions might see this as a terrific opportunity to build new degree-granting organizations adjacent their own traditional campuses – unencumbered by the regulatory and governance hurdles that currently stymie their attempts to reach new markets, deliver new programs, or otherwise rethink how they do business.
It will, of course, be necessary to guard against the potential for new diploma mills entering the market and targeting federal dollars, but that’s where the regulatory apparatus becomes useful. It can both foreclose fraud and stimulate innovation at the same time. Under the kind of close supervision that a federal demonstration program would require, a few dozen experiments of this sort could teach us a great deal about what’s really possible when it comes to innovation in higher education.
If you think this sounds absurd, consider the case of the Relay Graduate School of Education, granted a charter by the New York State Board of Regents earlier this year to offer master’s degrees to teachers in New York. Founded by three charter school organizations – KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools – the Relay Graduate School of Education was purpose-built to meet the education and professional development needs of those schools’ own teachers.
Along the way, Relay did something innovative. It tore up the semester model. In its place, Relay delivers 60 discrete learning modules. Students learn in the context of the schools in which they teach, and online curriculum is augmented by cohort discussions within the schools, all under the supervision of on-site mentors. This is a very different way of thinking about delivering education – and it’s innovative.
What makes it innovative isn’t that there’s technology involved – it’s really a very people-centered learning model – it’s that the organization is free to rethink the “why” and “how” of teacher professional development. Equally important, the oversight of the Board of Regents puts Relay on a level playing field with all of the other traditional providers of master’s degrees in education within the state of New York. Now ask yourself why the same thing shouldn’t be happening in disciplines such as business, engineering, computer science, health care, and numerous other fields, and on a national scale.
There is, after all, another key element in Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. It happens at the margins, and it happens within organizations that are free from the obligations of established incumbents. One of the great misunderstandings regarding Christensen’s theory, in my view, is that we can all disruptively innovate ourselves. But Christensen himself points out that the only companies that have successfully accomplished that feat have done so by establishing separate, discrete R&D units free of the pressures of the parent organization’s business model, customer demands, profit targets and more. The reality is, more often than not, that disruptive innovations put established incumbents out of business. That, after all, is what makes them disruptive.
If traditional higher education wants to innovate – if it realizes that it must – then that innovation will have to take place in the margins, free from the demands of traditional culture, regulation, and financial models. An Innovation Demonstration Program would allow us a chance to see just how much invention is in us, and how far we can go in lowering prices, increasing access, and educating the nation.
Peter Stokes is executive vice president of Eduventures, a higher education consulting firm.