CT 2013 | Feature

The Need for Innovation Amid Change

Issuing dire warnings about the threat facing higher ed, keynote speakers at Campus Technology 2013 also offered tough love and guidance for the future.


Watch a video mashup of CT 2013 keynote highlights.

Attendees at the Campus Technology 2013 conference in Boston this August could have been forgiven for thinking that they had walked into a trailer for an apocalyptic blockbuster. "You know what we really need in this society? Lots more fancy retirement homes. That's what a lot of colleges are on the verge of becoming," pronounced Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University (MA), during his keynote.

This story appears in the September 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

"The Harvards, the Yales, the Stanfords...will be around 500 years from now," added Adrian Sannier, former CIO of Arizona State University. "The rest? Some will, some will not. The next two decades decide."

In recent years, conference speakers have issued similar warnings, but this year their prophecies were more urgent and more frequent, thanks in large part to the rise of MOOCs. Imminent, massive change was the message of many of the speakers, who advised attendees to prepare now or be crushed.

In the opening keynote, Sannier drew parallels between higher education and some of America's biggest companies and industry sectors. "Tower Records used to have a big store in Times Square," he recalled. "Now they are just a hole in a strip mall. The music they were being paid for--people began snatching it from the air and not paying for it. That's called the Napster moment. Oh, I'm dead, you realize."

Sannier feels that higher education is facing its own Napster moment, although he cautioned against taking the analogy too far. Higher education, he insisted, is not a retail business. Instead, it's more like the nation's banks, woven into the very fabric of society. "A world without banks is unthinkable," he intoned. "All hell breaks loose." But the banks that survive today, he added, are very different from the banks of the past: They had to reinvent themselves in the digital age. Those that did so successfully now thrive; those that failed are gone. "The same thing is coming for us."

The Need for Relevance
What must colleges and universities do to emerge as one of the survivors? For many speakers, the answer to that question boiled down to one word: relevance. Through a combination of high costs, outdated pedagogy, and structural inflexibility, many of today's schools are in danger of simply becoming irrelevant to students--and employers.

Wagner asked attendees to think about what skills students need in today's workplace. "The world no longer cares how much students know," Wagner stressed. "People can do just-in-time learning to solve problems. What the world cares about is what they can do with what they know."

The primary purpose of college should not be to transmit content, he claimed; it should be to develop skills. Content knowledge still has its place, he said, but collaboration, skill development, and the ability to transform content knowledge are just as important. "Every student should have an e-portfolio that shows progressive mastery," he added.

And yet the transition toward providing students with these new skills remains painfully slow within traditional higher education. For example, noted Sannier, many courses are taught the same way year after year: "We're not serious about making courses better by leaps and bounds." In thinking about continuous improvement, he believes we have been tinkering around the edges too much, unlike revolutionary new players such as Knewton and the MOOC providers. "In the core business of teaching and learning, we are careful not to tread on toes, whereas these new entrants are not."

But more than the pedagogy must change if higher education is to reestablish its relevance. How universities are structured, how learning takes place, and how that learning is rewarded are all under the microscope. For instance, the current system of degrees is ripe for disruption, noted Lev Gonick, former VP for Information Technology Services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University (OH), during his keynote. Once the initial hype around first-generation MOOCs dies down, he believes the conversation will shift to a more profound discussion about the value of a university degree. In his mind, valuable alternatives to traditional degrees will exist within 10 years. "We need to grapple with that," he said.

In the Hot Seat
At the CT conference two years ago, CIOs debated ways for IT to secure a seat at the table with their institutions' leaders. Today, CIOs are not only at the table but all eyes are on them--for good reason. The success or failure of institutions is going to rely in large part on how schools handle the technology that is disrupting education in the first place.

Given such awesome responsibilities, IT shops must also fundamentally change what they do and how they do it. Gonick warned attendees that their IT departments will fall behind if they continue to fight yesterday's battles about issues such as outsourcing e-mail or PC versus Mac. "Those things are irrelevant to our current students and to incoming students," said Gonick, who is now chief executive officer of OneCommunity, a nonprofit organization that is helping to drive Northeast Ohio's digital capabilities. "The creative destruction process that's underway means that if we choose to remain plumbers, we do so at our own peril, realizing that we will likely be washed over in the tsunami of change that is happening around us."

Gonick listed several trends that CIOs should embrace, including:

  • Acknowledge that the PC era is dead. Higher education overall spends about $4 billion on desktop PCs and support, even though sales trends suggest that desktop PCs are on the way out. In contrast, "How many of you feel on top of tablet- and smartphone-based education?" he asked the audience.
  • Embrace x as a service. With the trend toward infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and software as a service, Gonick sees one of IT's biggest challenges as identifying IT's value-add. "There's no doubt that x as a service is exploding in front of us," Gonick said. "If we don't want to be seen as a limiting factor, we have to get out in front of these trends," not fight rearguard battles about holding onto roles and responsibilities as an entitlement.

A Culture of Innovation
But creating a new culture of innovation--whether in IT or campuswide--is daunting. Indeed, in his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World (Scribner, 2012), Wagner came to believe that the culture of higher education is fundamentally at odds with the ability to innovate. For instance, it compartmentalizes knowledge and rewards specialization, whereas innovation happens at the margins and intersections of disciplines. Schools teach students to be compliance-driven and risk-averse. "Innovation demands risks and failures," Wagner said. "There is no innovation without trial and error."

So can schools--and IT--turn the ship around? Yes, given the right leadership, atmosphere, and expectations. That, at least, was the message of the joint closing keynote by Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative, and Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue University (IN). In Brown's view, an overemphasis on efficiency and quick turnaround tends to produce standard, in-the-box ideas. He urged IT administrators to give their employees the freedom to be creative.

It's a strategy that appears to be working at Purdue, whose IT group has started what it calls "Living Dead Week." During slow or "dead" times in the academic calendar, IT employees get one week free twice a year to work on a single deliverable, such as a new product feature or professional skill development. "We schedule these when demand is low, and we plan it out in advance," said Bowen, adding that several applications in use at Purdue were developed during Living Dead Week.

Brown would like to see an IT organization spend 70 percent of its time on core services, 20 percent on initiatives that gradually make things better, and 10 percent on revolutionary ideas. "There is a real advantage to that 10 percent," noted Brown. Even if most of the new ideas fail, you learn and bring ideas back to the core services. "Cultures of innovation are cultures of learning," he concluded. "Value the good failure. 'F' is the new 'A.' Failure is not a thing to be afraid of."

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