We often hear that “change comes slowly to higher education”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; change isn’t always good, of course. But as the importance of higher education to the population grows and advances in technology pose even more tantalizing opportunities for us to rethink how we do our work, there’s a tremendous interest in understanding the obstacles to innovation in this sector.
We can approach this on two levels: we can ask, first, what structural and system-wide obstacles are in place that make changes of any sort difficult, regardless of their intention, tactics, or context. We can also, though, “get into the weeds” and consider how specific innovations or attempts at innovations run up against specific obstacles. The answers are closely related, and are best tackled in tandem.
Obstacles and Business Models
Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC, nicely deploys the framework of business models to look at the structural factors inhibiting innovation. His analysis cites:
- a regulatory (accreditation) scheme that polices institutions, but also serves to protect the current definition of post-secondary education, and by extension, the institutions that adhere to the standard model faithfully;
- the unique dual role of faculty, as both educators and institutional managers, enables them to challenge changes that might lead to re-skilling or de-skilling of their work and therefore, potentially weakening their labor market value. (Armstrong isn’t suggesting that faculty are unusually self-interested. Indeed, if faculty were to prop up changes that lead to diminishment of their labor market value, they might be the first occupation to ever do it);
- the difficulty and tendency to not aggressively measure value in higher education that, in turn, has resulted in an over-dependence on “surrogates of quality” that have only a limited impact on the quality of learning (e.g. research productivity of faculty; tuition – the higher the “better”). This can weaken an institution’s commitment to improving the quality of learning;
- people in successful organizations tend to internalize commonly held notions of what constitutes a great university; interpreting these practices, processes, and ideas as natural and best.
Specific Innovations, Specific Obstacles
We can take a second step and consider how the design and logic of our institution – it’s business model, essentially – plays out in actual instruction. As Scott Levine noted in response to last week’s post on Innovation & Change in Online Higher Education, we need to move beyond generalities and start analyzing the specific ways that innovation is limited and enabled.
How can we use the framework of business models to help us understand precisely how innovation can and can’t work in higher education?
Many consider online higher education consider to be an example of business model innovation (see Clayton Christensen). I think that’s the case, but it’s not the whole story or even the most interesting part. While a large number of our colleges and universities took the initiative to make online courses and programs part of their offerings, most did it without making substantial changes to how the institution operates; instructional technology was used to make incremental or sustaining, rather than radical or disruptive innovation. Technology was affixed to the existing, traditional business model of the institution, rather than using it with a new business model – which, according to Christensen and others – that have studied innovation, is the path to dramatic increases in value. The now ubiquitous LMS, for example, was designed so as not to alter the organizational DNA of the institution; it allowed instructors to continue to work largely independently and “own” their courses, as has long been the tradition – despite the oft-repeated contention that this one-person, “cottage model” limits what can be achieved in terms of the course design and development. Nor was the technology used to take greater advantage of the tremendous economies of scale that the Internet enables. Not surprisingly, the quality and cost benefits from instructional technology have been less stellar than first imagined. Unlike other sectors that have applied technology to new business models to reduce costs, improve quality or both, higher education remains largely subject to the ‘iron triangle’, in which any efforts to improve one objective – cost, quality or access – leads to a negative impact on one or both of the others.
By understanding innovation in terms of the unique characteristics of higher education may be a useful place to start in order to better navigate around potential obstacles. So, how might specific types of innovations interact with obstacles that are endemic to higher education? Social media can serve as an example.
Many educators have sought to leverage the tremendous popularity and functionality of social media for instructional purposes. But the way in which social media is designed, and the particular ways in which people seem to want to use it, are in some quite fundamental respects, out of alignment with how higher education is organized – for example:
- Social media is well-suited to facilitating open-ended exchanges between people – with no prescribed beginning and end. Users float in and out of conversations; they rarely have specific goals for these interactions, and they enter these spaces only when and to the degree they wish. Higher education, on the other hand, has very clear boundaries (e.g. course duration) and largely predetermined objectives (e.g. a fixed and standard set of assessments).
- The content of social media is user-generated and leaderless; the line between “author” and “audience” is seriously blurred. This is one of its’ most compelling characteristics. Higher education, however, is inherently top-down and instructor-directed. The educator is the primary source of knowledge. Efforts to redefine the academic as anything other than the subject-matter expert – such as having them teach other people’s curriculum – are met with intense resistance.
- Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users within a single, overarching community. The high volume of users provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency to make participation worthwhile. Twitter and Linked In have well over 300 million active users. Higher education instruction, by design, typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. 40-100 students per course). Indeed, exclusivity and small class sizes are equated with quality.
This is not to suggest that social media can’t be used effectively in higher education. They can, and they are. But the business model of higher education used by the vast majority of institutions will, on average, make their use less effective, more complicated, take longer to achieve, and cost more. Business models are the structures in which we work; they frame the possibilities. A wider discussion about the qualities of the institution’s business model can help us identify where the greatest opportunities for improvement lie.