Disruptive Innovation | Viewpoint

The Bygone Decade of Definition, Distance

The decade we have just closed out seemed to be a decade of continuous definition and redefinition of the distance between where we are and where we need to be in our education system.

We spent endless time and money identifying all the reasons why our system is not in pace with our students' desires and fretting over our inability to finance the continuation of our persistence to prolong traditional processes. Throughout this exhaustive (and exhausting) period, our ability to accept the change we have clearly identified as critical for our future has not transitioned to adequate action.

Of course this inaction results in even greater distance between our digital natives' expectations and our current practices. Our digital natives, who now represent the majority of students, even in higher education in the U.S., are not yet in positions of influence as faculty and administrators. No matter what our instincts and findings are telling us, the timing is such that the necessary changes to our education system are not yet taking place. Still, this rather understandable timing mismatch could and perhaps should give us hope for the next decade.

We've seen the beginnings of progress in the past several years, considering what foundation leaders such as Andrew W. Mellon, Hewlett, Gates, and Sloan have generously shared. And internationally--perhaps with less restraints and more impact--the Qatar Foundation with Her Highness Sheikha Mozah's WISE initiative, Sheikh Nahayan's Education Without Borders, King Abdullah's KAUST research university initiative, and the Open University in Singapore are all most exemplary in their global leadership in funding important disruptive innovation initiatives.

Initiatives with the most impact have been generated by foundation leaders who have demonstrated unique insight into an important fact: Incremental changes are not going to do the job! And merely throwing enormous resources at perpetuating traditional practices will not adequately address our great need for education reform. The most beneficial initiatives start by recognizing the value that technology will bring to education reform--technology used not as merely data manipulation, but as a means to help institutions meet their missions.

While foundations and other benefactors have taken their own steps, higher education has some presidents like Michael McRobbie, Michael Crow, Raul Rodriquez, Dennis Murray who, in spite of not being digital natives themselves, have stepped out and committed their institutions to a new world of collaboration with other higher education institutions as a means of increasing their innovation reach without increasing their costs. Though it is a bit unique for presidents to step out so aggressively, there are even more examples of some faculty and administrative leaders guiding their institutions to the same collaborative relationships. Such schools as Cornell, University of Hawaii, the Naval Postgraduate School, UConn, Colorado State University, Michigan State University, University of Washington, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, University of Maryland, Iowa State, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, NYU, and others are prime examples of this new wave.

This is all encouraging, of course. And with our digital natives beginning to come into greater influence perhaps in the next decade, there is increasing probability that many more institutions will benefit similarly. There have been very encouraging results from higher education leaders' collaborative efforts. However, our need for systemic change depends even more heavily on the commitment of more of our higher education institutions today, and on the participation of the majority, not just the leading edge. We should not merely rest waiting for our digital natives to mature, to shake our entrenched systems. Rather, we should all take a small leap of faith from our "comfort" patterns and become part of this disruptive innovation.

There are a few key factors to become involved with as higher education strategists, factors that our digital natives are telling us have been stimulated by the Internet--such factors are increased communications and group discussions, interactive learning with the aid of the computer, ability to learn 24/7 from wherever we might be, individualized (personalized) learning opportunities, attention to the capability of searching for and finding relevant information at one’s fingertips, and the ability to guide one’s own learning experience.

All of these "new" (for some!) opportunities, and many more, can be best developed by institutions and education professionals collaborating with one another. This collaborative strategy is proving to be an effective way to leverage our individual resources, resulting in quantum advances at affordable costs and through very sustainable solutions. The results thus far have proven that we should no longer depend on either proprietary vendors or ourselves, alone, to prepare our needed environments.

An equally important element in this "new normal" socioeconomic environment is that the Intellectual Property will be increasingly open: open courseware, open text books, open source software solutions, and open access to solutions and to one another. This rapidly accepted model is an absolute key to advancing our education within our individual and our world’s economic means. As well, this model further encourages collaboration, which is the real fuel to disruptive innovation.

All this calls for our higher education leaders to both work with the digital natives and take a heading from the many peers and colleagues who are forging these innovations. Our current leaders have to accept some perceived discomfort by not merely studying and speaking to change, but actively and willingly participating in the indicated change. All the elements leading to our system’s current discomfort suggest that disruptive innovation is our salvation. All indicators for needed change and how this change can be realized are now in line. Our success will be judged by our resolve to accept this ideal timing to be a willing participant (and not to be left behind). Our new decade is clearly well positioned to be our education systems’ enlightenment years and years that will reflect what our digital natives tell us motivate, stimulate, and cause them to become the players that they will need to become going forward.

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