Thomas Kuhn (1962) introduced the concept of paradigm shift as a way to describe how a prevailing understanding in science is replaced with a new understanding in light of overwhelming evidence that the explanations currently being used to understand the world are no longer adequate. Although originally limited to science, the idea of a paradigm shift has been applied to other areas of understanding (e.g. the impact of the internet on economics).
A disruptive innovation, as espoused by Clayton M. Christensen, is an innovation that changes the way something is done, and has specific reference to economics. A disruptive innovation introduces a change that allows new markets and ideas to emerge that are usually (almost universally) resisted by existing institutions, but which can, when properly exploited by a new player, undermine and eventually destroy existing institutions. Kodak is a recent example of a massive institution that expended too much energy defending old technologies and failing to properly embrace the disruptive innovation represented by digital imaging.
So what is the difference between disruptive innovations and a paradigm shift in today’s HE world? From my perspective, we are facing a number of disruptive innovations in education that, taken as a whole, represent an underlying paradigm shift.
The Higher Education sector is facing upheaval. Innovations in how information is stored, organised, transmitted and retrieved have been disruptive to traditional libraries and publishing houses. We are beginning to see the innovations in communication having a significant impact on traditional scholarly publication (finally). The way information is packaged and delivered to students is being jostled about in traditional institutions. Non-traditional ways of reaching students have emerged in the form of on-line classes, courses and programmes (even if they simply try to replicate traditional teaching methods). Psychology is just beginning to disrupt the ways we think about teaching and learning. New models of thinking about the organisation and purpose of teaching and learning are being discussed. Gamification, experiential learning, skills based approaches, problem based learning, social networking and social learning – all innovations that challenge our ways of thinking about teaching and learning in the C21.
I would classify all of these as disruptive innovations. Taken individually, they represent new ways of thinking about or doing something that provide opportunities and new markets for education. Private providers are rushing to grab a piece of the emerging (and lucrative) educational pie that has resulted from these innovations (and others) and the inevitable upheaval that has followed.
The paradigm shift that I think is taking place in education is an overarching change in the way the world works, and is represented in many of the innovations we find so disruptive. Digitisation has moved us from an information scarce world to an information abundant world. The shift is from information scarcity to information abundance. The implications of that shift are enormous. We (society) has invested heavily and (eventually) embraced every innovation that has made information more abundant, and many of these innovations are milestones in the development of civilization. The great libraries, the discovery of inexpensive paper making techniques, the invention of the printing press, the transmission of sound and pictures, the advent of computing, and the emergence of the internet. We no longer live in a world of information scarcity, and we have and are watching the emergence of a world of information abundance.
The implications of this paradigm shift are only just beginning to dawn on a few of us. What does it mean to learn in a world where all there is to learn is freely available to you right where you are! Now!
You don’t have to go somewhere. You don’t have to be told what there is to be learned. You don’t have to be constrained by the availability of an expert. You don’t have to have your information filtered by anyone. You don’t have to have your learning organised by anyone else.
In this world of information abundance, why do we need to gather to centres of learning? Why do we need to listen to an expert when all they have to say is freely available? Why do we need to buy a textbook of organised and re-presented information? Why do we need to organise learning around a single subject? Why is memorised knowledge still the key to attainment in education when knowledge access is ubiquitous? Why do we sit and listen, by the hundred, to what we need to learn so we can parrot the information (and a bit more) back?
What is the value added?
There was a time when information was scarce, and the methods used to learn were appropriate. That time has passed, and we are participating in a paradigm shift. Embrace it, its going to happen anyway.