“Disruptive Innovation” in Universities is not as important as Value

June 26, 2014 at 7:44 am 6 comments

The below-linked article by Jill Lepore is remarkable for its careful dissection of Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” (Thanks to Shriram Krishnamurthi for the link.)  As Lepore points out, Christensen’s theories were referenced often by those promoting MOOCs.  I know I was told many times (vehemently, ferociously) that my emphasis on learning, retention, diversity was old-fashioned, and that disrupting the university was important for its own sake, for the sake of innovation.  As Lepore says in the quote below, there may be good arguments for MOOCs, but Christensen’s argument from a historical perspective just doesn’t work.  (Ian Bogost shared this other critical analysis of Christensen’s theory.)

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, and I see similarities between how Lepore describes reactions to Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” and how Lewis describes the market around synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed financial instruments.  There’s a lot of groupthink going on (and the Wikipedia description is worth reading), with the party line saying, “This is all so great!  This is a great way to get rich!  We can’t imagine being wrong!”  What Lewis points out (most often through the words of Dr. Michael Burry) is that markets work when there is a logic to them and real value underneath.  Building financial instruments on top of loans that would never be repaid is ludicrous — it’s literally value-less.  Lepore is saying something similar — innovation for its own sake is not necessarily valuable or a path to success, and companies that don’t disruptively innovate can still be valuable and successful.

I don’t know enough to critique either Lewis or Lepore, but I do see how the lesson of value over groupthink applies to higher-education.  Moving education onto MOOCs just to be disruptive isn’t valuable.  We can choose what value proposition for education we want to promote.  If we’re choosing that we want to value reaching students who don’t normally get access higher education, that’s a reasonable goal — but if we’re not reaching that goal via MOOCs (as all the evidence suggests), then MOOCs offer no value.  If we’re choosing that we want students to learn more, or to improve retention, or to get networking opportunities with fellow students (future leaders), or to provide remedial help to students without good preparation, those are all good value propositions, but MOOCs help with none of them.

Both Lewis and Lepore are telling us that Universities will only succeed if they are providing value. MOOCs can only disrupt them if they can provide that value better.  No matter what the groupthink says, we should promote those models for higher-education that we can argue (logically and with evidence) support our value proposition.

In “The Innovative University,” written with Henry J. Eyring, who used to work at the Monitor Group, a consulting firm co-founded by Michael Porter, Christensen subjected Harvard, a college founded by seventeenth-century theocrats, to his case-study analysis. “Studying the university’s history,” Christensen and Eyring wrote, “will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practical strategies for success.” … That doesn’t mean good arguments can’t be made for online education. But there’s nothing factually persuasive in this account of its historical urgency and even inevitability, which relies on a method well outside anything resembling plausible historical analysis.

via Jill Lepore: What the Theory of “Disruptive Innovation” Gets Wrong : The New Yorker.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bckirkup  |  June 26, 2014 at 8:49 am

    It seems that the notion of disruptive innovation requires clarification. If something simply ‘does it better’ then it isn’t disruptive. It is hill climbing towards an optimum. Disruptive innovation somehow eliminates a prior local optimum, presumably during progress towards a new local optimum. This is equivalent to the notion of fitness landscapes shifting as a result of biotic interactions.

    Hill climbing need not provide better value immediately to provide better value eventually. The argument for disruptive innovation is essentially that people who defend the current local optimum against all disruption may ultimately be doing a disservice to society as a whole. However, unless something like regulatory capture is used to attempt to ‘freeze’ the local optimum by preventing innovation, disruption is a byproduct of the innovation existence, regardless of current or even potential value.

    I won’t say that disruption is somehow important for its own sake; but if the current system is fragile, then attempting to protect it in the current environment is a losing battle. Much better to help the new model hill climb.

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  June 26, 2014 at 10:01 am

      Is the suggestion that higher education is “fragile,” despite the fact that Universities have existed for thousands of years and convey significant value to degree recipients (see Fed report that just came out)? And the idea is that, one day, a MOOC-based education will reach more people, result in better learning outcomes, and will convey greater value than Universities?

      Reply
      • 3. bckirkup  |  June 26, 2014 at 10:30 am

        My suggestion is that yes, as currently conceived, universities are fragile.

        I’d love to give a full interpretation of the history of universities, a la Cardinal John Henry Newman, but that’s not possible here. It must suffice to point out that the place, role, scope and cost of college education has changed radically over the time period you describe. The idea that the majority of the population will progress through a four-year essentially liberal arts/sciences degree following public high school as a requirement for middle-class employment at an expense easily totaling 3 years parental median wage for tuition, room and board, is not – nor ever has been – sustainable. Even as an ideal, it was not ever reached. Just as the rate of college participation soared, the system crumbled.

        In addition, the abundance of public libraries and museums, not to mention the internet, challenges the role of college education in the archival and dissemination of many kinds of information. We could discuss the potential disintermediation of research as well.

        Yale speaks of the three legs of the stool – research, archival and education. Each of the three is under some kind of stress.

        If you suggest that the university system will retrench to a few dozen international institutions of enormous wealth and prestige, teaching and socializing only the young elite, perhaps for entry into quasi-religious sinecures, then you are more pessimistic than I. However, there is international precedence for such a model (France, for example). On the other hand, suggesting that large aspects of education required for fulfilling employment can be acquired at a modest cost, even concurrent with apprenticeships, is not pessimistic. It is optimistic. It would also change its nature of the university system substantially.

        None of this is to suggest that new educational systems should ignore quality – or engagement with underserved student populations. However, when the old system is crumbling, attempting even more ambitious goals within that very system is impractical.

        Reply
        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  June 26, 2014 at 10:44 am

          Don’t most college students end up with about $10K worth of debt (see recent NYTimes article)? And the recent Fed report suggests that a college degree (after costs of college subtracted out) is worth about $1M in extra income. The economic argument for a College degree keeps getting supported from economists. What’s not sustainable? I know that Harvard is much more expensive than average, so I could see an argument that a Harvard-cost College degree is not sustainable. I’m not questioning the issues of research and archival — I’m sure that your arguments on those are sound. But from an education perspective, I see that Universities can certainly be improved, but I don’t see that the model is fragile or unsustainable or crumbling.

          Reply
          • 5. bckirkup  |  June 26, 2014 at 11:09 am

            My understanding of the data is that students who complete their educations can’t be compared to the students who don’t at this point.

            I actually think that elite institutions will survive and possibly thrive. They aren’t the ones under the greatest stress at the moment. There are, however, numbers of middle-tier institutions closing their doors. As employers find ways to evaluate potential employees younger for entry-level positions which provide more on the job and concurrent education, the mid-tier institutions will be under increasing pressure because the apparent value of those degrees will continue to suffer. It is the local/regional schools which are critical to the ideal of nearly universal college education attainment; they are already suffering.

            In high schools, the signal of public school completion is fading as home schooled students increase in number. The elite colleges are increasingly willing to take home schooled students – who themselves are finding ways to demonstrate their potential without public school gatekeepers. This kind of disintermediation happened before, with the prep schools, when the public schools found ways to compete for elite college admissions. The prep schools which survive are elite – and serve the elite.

            As an aside, the elite colleges aren’t more expensive than many mid-tier schools at this point (http://campusgrotto.com/the-100-most-expensive-colleges.html). Elite schools also provide substantial financial aid to a majority of students.

            I took some classes about education – I would love to see better education. Better curriculum design, measurement of learning (from baseline), and so on, for all populations and at all levels. I’ve tried to enhance undergraduate, graduate, and post-bac education within my own small sphere. I’d love to discuss how this can be achieved more broadly, particularly to serve special populations like the military.

            Reply
  • 6. Richard Barke  |  June 26, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    The issue of “disruptive innovation” also appears in clinical research. When is it appropriate to change medical treatments when there is uncertainty about whether the relative therapeutic merits of the new treatment versus the existing technique? A similar question is raised by Mark (and Christensen): does the new approach (presumably online/MOOC education) deliver a result with higher value than the existing approach?

    This is an interesting intellectual/analytical question, but more than that. Like clinical treatments, the decision about how to proceed has very real consequences for humans. In randomized clinical trials the subjects and class of potential beneficiaries are patients or disease sufferers, and we recognize them in professional practice and in law as having rights. The concept of “clinical equipoise” is applied when there is no professional consensus about the comparative merits of the techniques being compared. It is widely accepted that there are ethical issues about testing new drug A on patients and withholding existing drug B if there is no compelling evidence that B is inferior.

    In education, B is the current higher education system and A is the disruptive intervention. Clearly there are still many doubts about whether B – the existing system, with all of its now well-touted faults – is indeed inferior to the new array of still-emerging educational technologies. As in clinical trials, accumulating evidence of A’s superiority is challenging without opportunities to experiment. But also as in clinical trials, the “value proposition” – to me, the welfare of students who “participate” (that is, enroll in universities for the next few years) – needs to be considered.

    Is the current system actually “failing” overall, or does it mainly irritate people who are driven by the need to innovate for the sake of innovation? I’d like to see compelling consensual evidence that the current system is actually a failure. Pointing to stodgy lecturers, administrative inefficiencies, and curricular intransigence doesn’t constitute proof. How clear is the evidence that the “disruptive innovations” are superior? If unclear, then we have a failure of “educational equipoise” and a severe ethical problem with tossing out an existing system and possibly harming students (or benefiting them less).

    “It is one of the characteristics of the present situation that specific reforms are advocated as though they were certain to be successful. . . This predicament, abetted by public apathy and by deliberate corruption, may prove in the long run to permanently preclude a truly experimental approach.” — Donald Campbell

    Reply

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