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Disruptive Innovation

Geoffrey H. Fletcher Technology may push colleges and universities to turn the conventional education model on its head.

In July, 65 technology executives from campuses across the country gathered just prior to the Campus Technology 2009 conference in Boston to discuss the topic "IT Leadership and the 21st Century Campus: Insight and Innovation." Through a jam-packed day of highly interactive panels, culminating in small group sessions, these IT leaders wrestled with some pretty lofty-- and knotty-- issues.

I particularly enjoyed the group discussions that were teed up by Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (MA) talking about the works of his Harvard colleague Clayton Christensen-- The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution-- as well as Christensen's latest, Disrupting Class, which applies the principles from the two Innovator books to education. Christensen's premise is that most companies (and institutions) do little to encourage innovation on a grand scale, and instead focus on "sustaining innovations"-- that is, innovations that keep the product or service going, but only create incremental improvements in it.

Disruptive innovations, Dede said, offer a new product that initially may not be as effective as what is currently sold to a broad audience, but meets an immediate specialized need of a smaller audience. Over time, the disruptive product is more nimble and responsive and evolves more quickly to meet the needs of a broader audience. Ultimately the disruptive innovation can drive out the standard product.

Applying these principles to education, Dede asserted that schooling (and by that he meant formal, institutionalized education based on the industrial model) is the sustaining innovation-- it keeps going and a few refinements or fads incrementally improve it, but change is really on the edge of the entire institution. The disruptive innovation in education is customization, Dede said. The most prevalent form of customization in higher education is online learning, but as students demand more and more customization, as they are used to with Web 2.0 tools, Amazon, and other services, higher education has come under siege. While Dede did not mention this, to me private for-profit institutions are a good example of this siege, in that they are offering services and programs that initially catered to a small, niche audience, but now are being used by students of all kinds.

After this backdrop from Dede, the IT leaders broke into small groups to discuss three provocative questions:

  1. Do you concur that the conventional model of higher education is under siege in terms of cost, quality of preparation, and proportion of students who graduate?
  2. Are efforts to customize/personalize learning for students underway on your campus?
  3. In the next few years, do you intend to make substantial strategic investments in this type of technology?

The short answers to these questions were dishearteningly honest: Yes, higher education is under siege; the efforts to customize/personalize learning are occurring in some campuses, but only in isolated pockets; and there isn't much going on in the way of investment in technology that would help.

How would you answer those three questions? Send me your thoughts at [email protected].

--Geoff Fletcher, Editorial Director

We want to hear from you! E-mail us at [email protected].

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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