Disruptive Innovation in Education

Disruptive innovation, as proposed by Clayton M.Christensen, has and is occurring in higher innovation. Technology has left its mark on a number of sectors, primarily commercial, in the recent past with many of the traditional models that have served well in the past being swept away. The primary innovation that has changed so much of the world around us has been digitization. It is not that we are doing new things, it is that the way we are doing them has changed.

I think of photography as an example. While I was doing my undergraduate degree, I worked in a photo development shop – which some of you will never have seen. I was working in an innovative 1-Hour photo shop. It was amazing that you could take a roll of film with 24 pictures on it and drop it off and I would load the film into a developer where it would go through a series of rollers and racks only to emerge 20 minutes later dried and ready to print. I would then print the 24 pictures, and 15 minutes later the photos would come out, neatly cut and trimmed, ready for the customer to pick up in a nice neat envelope. Once they paid the $14.95, they could take the pictures home and enjoy them in whatever way they chose to enjoy their photographs.

That model seems absurd in today’s world. Incredible that you would pay $.62 per picture, whether they turned out or not, and had to wait, even an hour for them to be printed. I still find it amazing that I (or more likely my grandchildren) can take my mobile phone and snap pictures until the memory runs out (which they did when I had less memory) and not have to wait even a full second to see the photo. If you want to print it out, which rarely happens these days, it can be done less than five minutes later. Digitization not only disrupted the industry, it destroyed it. Some of the biggest companies in the world (Kodak, Fuji etc.) were all but destroyed as they fought back against the arrival of digitization.

We are beginning to see the same thing in higher education. The earliest signs have been in how we communicate with our students. E-mail, learning platforms, and classroom projectors have completely transformed the way we interact with our students. Even though there are a few holdouts who refuse to use these tools, for the most part, they are ubiquitous in higher education. There even some classes that are taken completely online. Since we deal with the transmission of information, we can expect the digitization of information to have some impact.

More recently the traditional method of publishing research findings has begun to change. At first, there were a few on-line journals that have made real inroads into the traditional industry. The industry has fought back by making their product, academic journals, available on-line for scholars to read – for a price, paid either by the institution or the individual. Freeing up the information from behind the locked doors of the publishers has been a difficult process, costing us the life of one of the brightest tech minds (Aron Swartz) of the last 25 years. However, try as they might, the walls are crumbling, and with the advent of Sci-Hub, the traditional academic publishing world is coming to an end. They are not going without a fight. Just as in every other industry that has been destroyed by digitization, the big academic publishing houses are doing all they can to stave off the disruptive innovation that is destroying them.

One of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation is the intransigence of the established institutions in expending their energies resisting the changes. Just as the publishing houses are fighting tooth and nail trying to protect their business model while it is crumbling around their ears, so to have other industries exhausted their energies and capital defending a doomed working model.

The same thing is happening in higher education as a whole. Digitization has moved the world from the age of information scarcity to information abundance. Looking at the way that universities conduct their business, you would think that digitization has never happened. A few new tools have been adapted, but the model hasn’t changed. I have written endlessly (it seems) about the proven ineffectiveness of lecturing, but lecturing still maintains a grip on around 90% of the teaching done in higher education. This grip is being maintained by nothing more than inertia, but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade.

Students are paying enormous amounts of money to go to university in order to get a qualification that will give them access to a great job and set them up. I remember a student colleague who said to me that getting a degree was a get rich slow scheme – and it worked. It did work well when I was a student, but our unwritten social contract with our students is broken. Our graduates are leaving our institutions to nothing. We are preparing them for jobs that existed 30 or 40 years ago, and they can’t find work. Our graduates, for the most part, are entering a world where they are likely to be employed in part-time short-term contracts, often in the service industry.

The system that worked so well for us in the past is no longer working for our students. Even more depressing is that if nothing changes, these trends are likely to deteriorate rather than improve.

Higher education can continue to rely on the prestige of a qualification for a while yet, but as these numbers continue to deteriorate disillusionment will set in and our qualifications will plummet in value.

We are at a crossroad. Do we expend our energy and resources trying to maintain our institutions as they are or do we begin to explore what we can do to change in a positive direction for all the stakeholders involved? Universities have survived earthshaking changes in the past – will we be able to survive this one, or will we be swept away like the photos or record albums of yesterday?

I know that if we try, we can do it. I have faith in the system. We can do better, so let us just do it.


How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

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