As regular readers of this blog know, I have been using Clayton Christensen's concept of disruptive innovation to frame issues in higher education since 2006 (Disruptive technologies: when great universities fail?). Christensen's work describes corporations (and industries) that are considered to be enormously well run and successful, but are essentially destroyed in a relatively short time by some new competitor that brings a new innovative approach to meeting the needs of the customers. The disruptor's new product is less expensive than the traditional product, and has some attributes that are quite different. Initially, the disruptor's product does not meet the customer's needs so well as the established product. Over time, however, the disruptor's product improves, and customers come to find its additional attributes to be very useful. Christensen also differentiates between this disruptive innovation and a sustaining innovation. The latter is used to improve established products. Christensen shows that continual application of sustaining innovation often leads to an established product that is "better" than the customer needs -- or wants to pay for. Thus the very quality of the established product may well be one of its weaknesses. Eventually a tipping point arrives, and customers rapidly migrate to the new product that is both less expensive and has additional useful attributes.
Christensen describes characteristics of traditional companies that have fallen prey to a disruptive innovation. I always felt that higher education fits to a T his picture of an industry that has a high probability of suffering a major disruption. Fortunately, you no longer have to view the issues through the lens of my interpretation of Christensen, because Christensen and co-workers have recently turned their attention higher education. A number of their works have now appeared or will soon appear. I previously did a post on his recent Disrupting College; Christensen and Eyering have a book appearing in August on the Innovative University:Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out; and Michael B. Horn, a regular Christensen collaborator, has recently published an excellent paper Beyond Good and Evil:Understanding the Role of For-Profits in Education through the Theories of Disruptive Innovation. All highly recommended.
With all of this, I thought it useful to introduce a blogroll on some companies, institutions, think tanks, etc. that seem to me to be doing interesting things that might well turn out to be disruptive for various aspects higher education, and/or sustaining for others. The blogroll will not seek to be all-inclusive. Rather, it will be indicative of areas in which I find that very interesting things are happening. I will add more sites to the roll from time to time as I see things that attract my interest.
The original set of sites I have chosen give an idea of some of the areas that I find to be interesting from the standpoint of disruption of traditional higher education. My descriptions of each are too short to serve them well, so follow some of the links for more details. Most are working on concepts that can be used in both sustaining and disrupting modes. For example, the National Center for Academic Transformation looks at ways that technology can be used to improve learning outcomes while lowering costs. This information can obviously be used in traditional higher education in a sustaining way, but almost certainly will also be a key part of any "package" that seeks to disrupt traditional higher education.
One of the "moats" around the traditional system is its control of credentialing. Learning Counts and the Open Badges Project are two examples of alternative approaches to credentialing. Both provide a framework for recognizing in one format experiential learning and learning from different educational institutions. Learning Counts is a partnership between three well established organizations: ACE, the College Board, and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Thus Learning Counts certification will likely be be acceptable to many traditional institutions in determining transfer credits - a (partially) sustaining role. Open Badges, on the other hand, seems to be seeking to become widespread enough that it can supplant some of the credentialing power of traditional institutions that are not recognizing how people learn today -a more purely disruptive play. It imagines badges that will recognize skills, achievement, and learning beyond the classroom, issued by organizations, courses and communities. It looks to active experimentation in methods of assessment to back up the badges. Open Badges is a collaboration between p2pu and Mozilla, with support from the MacArthur Foundation.
StraighterLine and p2pu offer students a variety of online learning opportunities. StraighterLine splits off the more common college core courses and focuses on them - an approach that has long been predicted to be an important disruptive focus because these are the "profit" courses for traditional institutions. Their goal is to offer quality online courses at a very low price. Their courses have been evaluated by ACE and recommended for college credit, thus facilitating transfer. p2pu provides a space for online learning communities. The communities work on tasks, then assess individual and group work, and provide feedback. They have a Hewlett grant to look at deeper learning in online peer learning, so this is a very interesting educational experiment in peer learning and its assessment as well. p2pu awards badges for achievement as part of the Open Badges project.
It might seem strange to put such established institutions as Laureate International Universities, University of Phoenix, Western Governors University (WGU) and the Open University (OU) on the same list as p2pu and StraighterLine. However, each of these is built around concepts that potentially are highly disruptive for traditional higher education, and are still "young enough" in the higher education space that their models are continuing to improve towards a potential disruptive breakthrough for the field.
OU is the oldest and most established of this set (1969) and thus we can be forgiven if we sometimes forget it has some very radical concepts at its core and the evolution it has taken. First of all, it has always been "open" in its entrance requirements, and always been exclusively distance learning. Its methods of distance learning have, of course, changed greatly over time and now take full advantage of the internet. Second, OU altered the traditional "bundling" of the faculty member's many roles. On the teaching side, tradition calls for the faculty member to create a course, teach it, and assess outcomes. OU faculty create courses in conjunction with educational technologists and media specialists, but do not teach the courses. Direct contact with students comes through a system of tutors who meet the students online or face to face, and are responsible for grading assignments. Core faculty thus are freed up to spend more of their time on research and teaching of students working for a graduate research degree. Because of this, OU has a robust research output for its size. With this organization, a relatively small core academic faculty (less than 1000) is able to both assure up-to-date academic programming for over 250,000 students, and do important research in their fields.
The University of Phoenix is the second oldest of this group (1976), and focuses primarily but not exclusively on educating working adults in the US. It has a mix of physical sites and online offerings serving roughly 500,000 students. Phoenix broke the traditional expensive coupling of research and teaching to focus only on the teaching aspect of higher education. It understood of the need of a student-centered (rather than faculty-centered) approach, and so in earlier days emphasized setting up teaching facilities in areas where there were concentrations of potential students, and holding classes at times convenient for working people. With the advent of the internet, Phoenix began to offer its courses online. Courses are developed centrally much as at OU through collaborations between subject matter experts, technology experts, and learning experts. Actual teaching of these centrally developed courses is carried out by faculty who generally are working professionals in the field in which they teach. Over the years, Phoenix has continuously improved on its many innovations, thus following Christensen's developmental path of the potentially disruptive innovator.
Laureate International Universities is a network that includes a large number of "bricks and mortar" higher education institutions around the world, and also has a strong presence in online education. Its institutions are primarily focused on teaching rather than research. Founded in 1998, it now has over 650,000 students worldwide. It has grown its network primarily through acquisition of, or partnership with, existing institutions. Laureate is very aggressively exploring the meaning of globalization in higher education, and has very few comparable competitors in that space at this point. Although each of its institutions operates as its own unique brand, guided by local leadership, Laureate is actively exploring synergies that come from shared curriculum, degree programs, faculty, and student exchange opportunities. Whether this exploration of educational globalization will lead to disruptive or sustaining changes in traditional place-based higher education remains to be seen, but this is a fascinating experiment.
The Western Governors University was founded in 1997 by the governors of western states. It is completely online, and focuses on learning outcomes. It now has about 25,000 students, but is poised for additional growth as it steps into several states to pick up It has similarities with OU and Phoenix in that it uses a program faculty to define needed competencies and develop courses of study. Program faculty then work with student mentors who provide personal support for students, and course mentors who are subject matter experts that provide academic support in specific courses as appropriate to each student. There are about 700 full time faculty, 100 part time faculty in these three roles. The big innovation at WGU, however, is its use of a competency-based approach. Degrees are based on demonstrating real world competencies rather than credit hours. Tuition is charged at a flat rate every six months, so the student can attempt to demonstrate as many competencies as possible for a single fee during that period. Thus prior experience or education can enable students to move more rapidly through the degree.
Competency based learning is one of the radical ideas embedded in the Bologna Process. The Bologna region of Europe is interested in facilitating student transfers among its many universities, but ran into issues of differing standards and general opaqueness of degree requirements. They hit upon the idea of associating development of certain intellectual capacities and levels of knowledge acquisition with specific levels and types of degrees - the Framework for Qualifications. Those capabilities are to be measured by looking at outcomes, not credit hours or the like. In the world's largest educational experiment, Europe is now developing that Framework, and the associated outcome measures that will be used to determine if individual students have met the expectations for their degree.
The Bologna Process is certainly viewed by Europe as sustaining, but it looks pretty disruptive from my standpoint. If outcome measures (or competency based measures) become the standard for awarding of degrees rather than hours in the classroom, it will be possible to compare outcomes from different institutions. In particular, this will enable the up-and-coming disruptors to more easily demonstrate the quality of their output compared to that of the traditional providers. It will also greatly increase the ability of students to transfer course credits from more than one institution to another, thus increasing the opportunities for disruptors such as StraighterLine who break off some component of the present bundled product.
Lots of exciting things happening in the higher education area at this time!
(continue reading at part II of this post)