Audrey Watters wrote an interesting (I mean that I really found it really interesting) post on the role of disruptive innovations in the future of education. I enjoyed what she said, but have to respond with my own view of the “real” disruptive innovation that we are facing in education.
Audrey wrote about the various claims to what the disruption, that will change education for good, really is. The biggest claim to disruption lies with the edtech industry, with their latest classroom killer app or idea.
I think they have missed the boat. I am still firmly of the belief that there is a disruptive innovation that will (is) change(ing) the face of education forever. The innovation lies at the very foundation of our collective institutional philosophy. We have moved – for better or for worse – from an age of information scarcity to an age of information abundance.
The implications of this shift are only now beginning to be realised within the academy. MOOCs are a natural offshoot of this change and other manifestations will emerge.
Information is no longer scarce. It is no longer difficult to store, find or transmit. Information manipulation is no longer the domain of experts. Information is no longer only available in select places that hoard, store, catalogue, and disseminate it. It is becoming freely available to anyone with an internet connection. It will continue to increase in its availability and accessibility into the distant future. We are truly entering the information age.
One of the fundamental principles upon which Higher Education is built is information scarcity. According to this model, information is difficult to acquire, store, find, transmit, and manipulate. Universities arose as institutions that collected information (knowledge) to keep it in a safe place. Our very purpose has been to protect knowledge, store it, catalogue it, understand it, and disseminate it. This was best accomplished by large, well resourced institutions that offered a safe place for people who were interested in knowledge (academics) could gather themselves together in communities and work with it, becoming experts as they developed an intimate understanding of the information that they had access to through their proximity to the knowledge storage places (libraries and museums).
Over time, two offshoots emerged from the establishment of universities. The first was that, since knowledge and information were scarce commodities, the transmission and dissemination of knowledge could adopt to a market model, providing income for the support of the knowledge working community.
The second was that universities could play a leading role in the production of knowledge through research.
As a result, we see the institutions we are familiar with today.
However, what happens when information is no longer scarce? What happens when it costs virtually nothing to access, transmit, search and disseminate information? What happens when information becomes freely available, all over the world, almost as soon as it is created? What happens to our traditional institutions in the world of information abundance. This is the disruptive innovation. We are watching the beginnings of the changes now and the unease in the academy is real.
The market economy has seen opportunities to move into the world of education and change the way things are done. However, they are more concerned with the bottom line than they are with learning, and as a result, they appear as cheap, plastic replicas of the real thing. They have lost their lustre, and are working hard to gain it back again.
Traditional universities have become obsessed with the production of knowledge, and haven’t taken the time to reconsider what they are really all about in this new age of information abundance. Although the universal mantra is that teaching is important, the real importance of teaching lies with the funding that the market model of information scarcity attaches to students. What happens to all of this when information is abundant? Or maybe the better question is what happens to all of this when the world becomes aware of the irrelevance of universities (as teaching institutions in their current form) in the age of information abundance?
We are witnessing the onset of a massive disruptive innovation. Inertia keeps everything together, but for how long. I’m not so foolish as to date the arrival of the new, but disruption is, and will continue to happen. One of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation is the failure of established institutions to adopt to the innovation, which eventually leads to their demise. My hope is that higher education can adapt to this new world. My hope is that these institutions, that have played a central role in bringing the world to where it is today (for good and bad) will be able to adapt to the new reality – that information is not scarce, and that they need to change how they operate to take advantage of this new reality.
We need to remember that individual learning lies at the core of what we are, and begin to care about individual learning again.
How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?