Let’s Not Rush Into Disruptive Innovation

Despite all the talk about the need for innovation, colleges and universities today are changing too quickly, not too slowly, argues Johann N. Neem.

March 16, 2017
 
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Everywhere one turns, the idea of disruptive innovation continues to spread, even as academics have cast doubt on the theory’s validity. Put on the agenda by scholars such as Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, the idea presumes that old institutions, including colleges and universities, will be hard-pressed to change fast enough to meet new external environments. Instead, new technologies and organizations will outcompete the old, even if -- and, in fact, because -- the new ones offer a subpar but cheaper product.

In time, the new institutions will cultivate demand for their products, improve quality and displace the older institutions -- which did not change fast enough. This happens in Silicon Valley, and it will soon happen to campuses across America, Christensen and Eyring warned in their 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out.

The rhetoric of disruptive innovation combines a theory of organizational change with a theory of time. Existing institutions find innovation difficult because their structures and norms are oriented around doing, and even improving, what they already do -- a phenomenon political scientists call path dependence. Agile new institutions can enter the market because there is demand for more suppliers and they are not beholden to the past.

But such claims have often been married to the presumption that new technologies have sped up the rate of social change, making existing institutions even more vulnerable. And it is this piece -- the narrative of speed -- that has led so many advocates of disruption to believe that we must act now or be left behind.

The narrative of speed is quickly spreading. For instance, the authors of what came to be known as the Spellings Report, issued in 2006 by a commission appointed by then U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, concluded that higher education is a “mature enterprise.” “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril,” did not respond to a changing society, the report warned. New technology and global competition mandate a fundamental transformation of education institutions.

In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors’ decision to remove university president Teresa Sullivan in 2012, the board’s rector at the time, Helen Dragas, asserted that the institution was facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas proclaimed, “is simply moving too fast.”

Old-Fashioned Reforms

Policy makers and university administrators who advocate disruptive innovation are right that all institutions -- and colleges and universities are no exception -- must account for changing external environments. And no institution is ever static. But their proclamations to adapt or die ignore the fact that human environments are the products of human agency. Society is a human construct, not a natural process. Institutions can shape as well as reflect the society and culture around them. True courage is trying, even in the face of hostility and skepticism, to defend what colleges and universities do. But giving in is easier.

In fact, despite all the talk of innovation, what is perhaps most surprising is how familiar and uninteresting recent models of disruptive innovation really are. Yes, they use computers. But the structures of institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and the ever-expanding Arizona State University online programs are really premised on ideas that date back to the industrial revolution. Managers control the organization. Labor is subdivided into discrete tasks (what WGU calls the disaggregated faculty model) and alienated from the products of their work. In turn, those products -- including curriculum and assessment-- are standardized and work routinized. This is quite old-fashioned.

In contrast, forward-looking companies try to emulate traditional colleges and universities by building large, idyllic campuses where people can interact and be creative. “There is something magical about sharing meals,” said former Google CFO Patrick Pichette a few years ago on why Google discourages telecommuting. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?’” That sounds a lot like the traditional college experience, but, in new-model universities, fundamental aspects of traditional ones -- such as personalized teaching, green lawns, academic freedom, shared governance, meaningful exposure to liberal arts education, and time and autonomy for reflection -- are deemed irrelevant.

Take the argument that Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, made in his co-written 2015 book, Designing the New American University. Because expanding access to college degrees requires innovation, and because they wanted to move fast, ASU embraced technology to outsource teaching through, in Crow’s words, “partnerships to expand and improve the online learning experience, utilizing over 100 third-party tools and services.” Instructional designers work with faculty to design online courses that faculty members once taught. “Coaches,” teaching assistants and adjuncts teach online to students who might have had access to professors on campuses.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, celebrates the same reforms at his institution’s online College for America. In a 2013 statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, LeBlanc told senators that “not having traditional instructional faculty is not proving to be a problem. We use academics to construct the learning and to do the assessments, but not in any traditional instructional role. Students, working with the aid of a dedicated SNHU coach (or adviser), access rich learning content, their own resources and each other, and it is proving very effective thus far.”

What makes such reforms so hard to resist is the presumption that the world is moving too fast to take stock. All hands must be on deck. The ship is sinking. Legislators are impatient. Faculty members are complacent. But is this true? Is the world changing so fast that all the things colleges and universities are supposed to do and have done have been rendered irrelevant? Are the forces of disruption really that powerful?

The Value of Continuity

To even start answering these questions, we must examine the assumption that all of society is changing too fast for reflection. How do we know that today is moving faster than yesterday? Are we not just importing a storyline that might be true for one sphere of our lives -- technology -- into other spheres where change is slower? Does a story that emanates from Silicon Valley belong or even explain change elsewhere? And is all human activity subject to the same accelerating forces as technological innovation? Can we speed everything up? Should we?

In his 2008 essay “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society,” sociologist Hartmut Rosa raises the concern that our world is experiencing desynchronized rates of change. He argues that while technological change may be happening very fast, other realms of our shared lives cannot equally be sped up. That includes, he notes, democratic politics. Bold leaders who believe that the world is changing fast have little patience for “the political system’s fundamental inability to accelerate.” But “democratic political decision making” is always slow, Rosa writes, because “processes of deliberation and aggregation in a pluralistic democratic society inevitably take time.”

The same is true for higher education. Some parts of our world may be changing fast, but it’s not clear that one can speed up the rate of change in higher education without significant damage. Yet the narrative of speed, imported from the world of technology into the world of education, serves powerful interests. When we believe we have no time to slow down because the world is changing too fast, we prevent ourselves from asking what kinds of institutions we need. We raise our hands in surrender to what appear to be inexorable forces but are really human aspirations. To those who believe that all spheres of society are changing as fast as technology, there is no time to wait for those not already on board. The only way to stay afloat is to allow visionaries at the top to act boldly. Other people should follow along or be left behind.

Innovators dismiss those who might want to slow down and think, or who worry about what might be lost. We must not sit around and watch faculty members “deliberate while shifts in policy, culture and technology flash by at warp speed,” ASU’s Crow proclaims. There is no time for shared governance.

What these visionaries ignore is that institutions and ideas do not become outdated just like Apple computers. Moreover, disruptive innovation is a language of change but not always a description of the reality of it. As Harvard University historian Jill Lepore has written, disruptive innovation is “not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity.”

But we need continuity, too. Indeed, higher education institutions’ capacity to evolve slowly may be one of their chief virtues. Yes, today’s colleges and universities are vastly different than those of centuries past. But, as disruptive innovators condescendingly remind us, much remains the same. It is this ability of institutions to create spaces insulated from fast change that enables them to maintain forms of knowing that might otherwise disappear, to invest in scholarship that takes decades to pay off, and to educate students with ideas and perspectives that are not always prevalent in public discourse.

If we truly had courage, we would not give in so fast. Colleges and universities today are changing too quickly, not too slowly. Tradition has not been strong enough to withstand external pressure.

In such a context, true courage requires saying that enough is enough. It requires defending the college or university as an academic institution. It requires making clear that some things are worth saving and even savoring -- that continuity has benefits. It requires attributing long-term trends, such as the erosion of tenure or the decline of the liberal arts and public funding, to human beings rather than to disruptive technologies.

If we had courage, we would celebrate the fact that academic life moves slowly. Research takes time. Teaching does, too. To educate a human being requires her or him to step outside of the busyness of daily life. Developing new skills and knowledge takes years. It is even harder to inculcate in students such intellectual virtues as curiosity.

Education is a slow but necessary effort to transform people. It cannot be rushed, at least if we take it seriously. As I wrote in a previous essay, “time is formative.” It harms universities’ research and teaching mission to give in to the narrative of speed, as Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queen’s University, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, both in Canada, also conclude in their recent book The Slow Professor.

If we had courage, we would acknowledge that education cannot be done by machines or be done too fast. We would argue, as do Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs in How College Works, that true learning depends on the cultivation of personal relationships. We would conclude, based on the evidence Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa assemble in Academically Adrift, that the best way to improve student success is to put students on campuses that set high expectations and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences. Maybe we would invoke the work of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham or biologist James E. Zull, who have explored why real learning is tough and takes trust and time. Perhaps we would even stand up for the humanistic and civic goals of liberal education.

In short, we would argue that all students deserve access to real campuses and professors. We would urge legislators to help all students, of any age or background, afford the time it takes to get a college education. We would note that this is particularly true for disadvantaged and first-generation students, who do not benefit from the kinds of reforms disruptors advocate, at least if we want to offer access to a meaningful education and not just to degrees.

Instead of making the case for what works, disruptors have lost faith that their colleges and universities can resist external forces of change. They thus seek to tear down the walls between the institution and the world, forgetting that those walls are not just problems but also solutions. By creating spaces for intellectual refuge and reflection, colleges and universities provide something rare and necessary for our society. Disruptors often portray themselves as heroic agents of change. In reality, they are giving in by giving up. To run from forces that seem too large to counter is human, but it should not be confused for fortitude nor moral courage.

These are hard times, no doubt, for higher education. Colleges and universities face many pressures. It will take a lot of strength to meet new needs and new environments without sacrificing the academy’s core principles and practices.

It will take some resistance, too. We must be sympathetic with administrators who are fearful of the future and feel powerless to change it. They, more than faculty members, must respond to legislators’ demands to offer more degrees cheaper and faster.

But those of us who -- as citizens, legislators, administrators, faculty members and students -- want to pass down the opportunities we have had to future students and professors, and who aspire to increase access to it for first-generation students, must have the courage of our convictions. We must remember what colleges and universities are for and ensure that those purposes are sustained, even as our institutions continue to evolve. In short, we must respond deliberatively, not out of fear that the world is moving too fast for thought.

Bio

Johann N. Neem, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of “Experience Matters: Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time.” His new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, will be published later this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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