On July 28, 2014, MIT released a very important report looking at its future: Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, Final Report. This, taken with its November 21, 2013 (and more free-wheeling) precursor Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, Preliminary Report, form one of the most penetrating and visionary self-studies that I have seen - or thought I would ever see - from a major university. Many of the recommendations put MIT on the path of potentially disrupting its own business model. How MIT got to this point provides an excellent case study of the process by which a higher education institution might accomplish this very difficult transformation.
I briefly discussed the Preliminary Report in MITx and the transformation of residential education . In that report, a number of fascinating ideas are floated. On the more conservative side, there is a call for more experiential opportunities, an increase in flexibility for the student in terms of requirements and time to degree, and online graduate courses that enable just-in-time learning needed for research programs. That then morphs into a more radical decomposition of courses into modules, and we are introduced to modules that are sticky or smooth or horizontal or vertical. Modularity enables different learning pathways, different pedagogies, more intellectual connections. This is then taken to a lovely conclusion in a section called Disaggregation: Unbundling of the Traditional Institution in which modularity of courses enables the functions of the university to be disaggregated and reassembled in multiple pathways and temporal orderings.
One very interesting part of the report looked at the changes in facilities -spaces- that the rise of digital learning demands. Another considered the global implications of MIT's participation in edX and the opportunities that presented. A very nice analysis considered possibilities arising from combinations of different potential audiences, different modalities of education, and different potential outcomes. A final section of this Preliminary Report looked at MIT finances, past, present, and future. This section contained a great deal of financial data, and raised concerns about the stability of MIT's financial model with its strong dependence on government funding and financial markets.
It is not surprising that the Final Report is both more coherently organized around recommendations and somewhat less radical than the Preliminary Report. The critical first recommendation is to begin to institutionalize the movement of new ideas and approaches into MIT:
Recommendation 1: The Task Force recommends that MIT establish an Initiative for Educational Innovation to build on the momentum of the Task Force, enable bold experimentation, and realize the future the Task Force has imagined for education on campus and beyond.
The next 5 recommendations have to do with Transforming Pedagogy. The critical recommendation here is that the new Initiative engage in bold experiments to catalyze ongoing research, learning, and innovation about the future of MIT residential education. Some of these experiments are suggested to be in existing programs, and pick up on ideas described in the Preliminary Report: modularity, flexibility, alternative approaches to assessment, and expanded use of diverse pedagogies. A summer credit bearing program is suggested as offering additional opportunity for flexibility and experimentation: Under the auspices of the educational initiative, MIT can conduct summer experiments that explore, assess, and catalyze new pedagogies. The final proposed experiment is to Create an ecosystem that promotes educational connections across the Institute. ..Doing so will help provide contextualization to students, and preserve the value of different perspectives while reinforcing connections and relevance.
The next 5 recommendations deal with creating a strategy to expand MIT's global educational impact, in particular as influenced and enabled by MITx and the partner edX.The strategy is built around a commitment to extend to the world the commitment to pedagogical innovation for the residential campus described in the earlier recommendations. Thus edX enables exploration of modularity based on learning objectives and measurable outcomes and of games based education, results of which can be shared with everyone. MIT should partner with other universities to encourage use of MITx courses in blended ways. Departments are encouraged to develop classes on open ended problems such as air pollution that can be used as a modern version of "case studies". This section ends with the very important recommendation that MIT move forward to consider the types of certifications that can be supported through MITx and edX, and develop pricing methodologies and revenue-sharing arrangements for agreed-upon certifications. Heading toward the creation of the elusive second brand?
Thus, in these documents, MIT lays out a process for rolling out a radical new approach to its own residential education, and joins to this approach a strategy for increasing its global presence and influence. Not bad! How did they get to this heady point?
I think they got there through the presence of what was called in the aerospace industry a skunkworks - an internal incubator where new core competencies can be developed, and new ways of creating, capturing and delivering value can be derived from those new competencies. These new ways are then moved into the parent company, often changing its basic business model.
I have previously argued that MITx was the skunkworks in this story. However,I now see that extending my view in time reveals some critical aspects of the story that give us a beautiful case study of self-disruption in higher education. Of importance is that this self disruption does not use a stand-alone focused operation such as was used by IBM to create its PC, but is better described as an innovation initiative within the larger organization as discussed by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble (GT) in The other side of innovation: solving the execution problem.
The critical element in this story has been the mindset of a sequence of leaders of MIT who recognized that there was something special happening in the online world. Perhaps the real beginning of the MITskunkworks was the 2002 launch of OpenCourseWare (OCW). OCW's goal was to make all of MIT's undergraduate and graduate courseware (course notes, problems, curricula) free and accessible to users around the world. At present, materials for over 2,000 MIT courses are in OCW.
I was one of the many who looked with some confusion at this program. Anyone familiar with typical professorial courseware knows it is often sketchy, usually unpolished, and of highly variable quality - why would anyone else be interested in having access to this material that was incredibly inferior to what went on in the halls of MIT? Of course, Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation tells us exactly who would be interested in this inferior educational offering - people around the world who are not being well served by options available to them: the OCW approach that looks bad to those who can access MIT and its peers, looks great to many of those around the world who have very little access to quality higher education.
As reported in the Preliminary Report, OCW now is accessed by over a million unique users each month; over time, it has served well over 100 million users. The creators of OCW assumed that it would be most useful to teachers around the world, who would use it to structure their courses along the lines of MIT courses. Like many start-ups, however, OCW has found that their biggest customer base is an unanticipated group: self learners.
Thus, OCW fits the first step of Christensen's description of a potential disruptor. It provides a clearly inferior product, but one that appeals to a large number of previously underserved customers. Because of this large customer base, OCW was able to learn about its product, and clarify its targets.
OCW can be described using GT's perspective as a "disciplined experiment" in this innovation process, and the next critical step is to draw the right lessons from the experiment. In 2010, MIT set up the MIT-Online Study Group To explore the feasibility and possible approaches for MIT to extend its educational leadership, excellence and impact, domestically and worldwide, in a rapidly evolving global environment. It seems very likely that the experiences of OCW were of importance in the deliberations of this group, for the group's report led to the founding of MITx in 2011.
MITx is a big step forward in quality. Instead of a mish-mash of thrown together coursework, MITx presents specially prepared online courses using a high quality platform. Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT at the time of the MITx launch, made it clear that MITx was to be a transformative initiative for MIT, one that would change the face of residential education at MIT. It has been clear from the outset as well that MITx would be a testbed for new approaches to online learning, and that the data from the potentially very large number of users would be thoroughly analyzed in order to continue to improve the approach.Thus, MITx is a second "disciplined experiment" along the pathway of developing a potentially disruptive process.
Taking these two disciplined experiments together, it is interesting to see how they parallel completely Christenen's description of the pathway of a typical external potential disruptor: the original product is terrible by traditional standards, but an underserved customer base exists that enables continuing improvements in the product. Because the product is based on a rapidly improving technology, the product can improve rapidly, eventually becoming competitive with traditional products. That a product that can lead to self-disrupton follows the same developmental pathway as one that disrupts from the outside is logical, but fascinating to see.
Both OCW and MITx are, in GT's description, innovative initiatives that have project teams composed of both dedicated teams and shared teams. The dedicated teams are people who work full time on the project, and shared teams are composed of personnel who work only part time on the project and whose main focus is on the traditional work and standards of the organization, e.g. faculty who contributed material to OCW or courses to MITx, or provide educational oversight. The dedicated team is somewhat shielded from institutional focus on the continuation of the status quo by being able to create its own metrics of success, processes, and culture. Leaders of such initiatives obviously must be skilled to balance the competing drives of the two teams. Strong and clear support from the top is also critical, that that seems to have been the case at MIT.
This use of project teams composed of both dedicated and shared teams is probably necessary for self disruption in higher education. The faculty have been critically involved in the process as part of the shared team since the outset. Essentially all faculty were involved at some level in OCW, encouraged to think about the role of their course material in online education. MITx is drawing the faculty in deeper, as it asks them to produce high quality, pedagogically sound online courses. It is clear from the Preliminary and Final Reports that MITx has stimulated many faculty to think of education in very creative, non-traditional ways that are probably already changing education at MIT for the better.
The recommendation of the Final report to form an Initiative for Educational Innovation is basically a proposal to begin a disciplined experiment on ways to bring the potentially disruptive innovations of MITx into the residential community of MIT. For this step, the shared team - the faculty - will be driving the process much more than in the previous steps. This is where we will see whether the final result is of self-disruption, or a much more conservative sustaining innovation.