The delicate liaison between technology and higher education is both at its best and its worst at the annual Educause conference. Here is Indianapolis, many of the 307 vendors will show you why their technology is the sole path to higher education salvation. On the other side, frequent topics of attendee conversation include the over-hyping of technologies like big data, and vendors with over-featured technology draining IT budgets. Outside of Educause, the discussion veers to whether technology is even good for education.
Many of the sessions during day one of Educause 2015 got to the heart of the vital relationship of educational technology to the future viability of higher education. One session that stands out is Michelle R. Weise’s session What’s After “Next” in Higher Education? Michelle is the executive director of the Sandbox ColLABorative at Southern New Hampshire University. She is formerly a senior research fellow in higher education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and co-authored the book Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution with Christensen.
Weise presents a well-documented case that not only is disruption underway in higher education, but it is helping to reduce the inequity in our higher education system. Our most selective schools which nurture students to completion are 82% white; while open-access schools, where the completion rates are low, are disproportionately African American and Hispanic. Today 13.5 million students are attending schools outside the top 250 colleges ranked by US News.
Disruptive innovation is driven by scalable technology that initially addresses the needs of non-consumers at the low end of a market. Today, these non-consumers are represented by the 91 million Americans with high school, but not college degrees. They are looking for the skills or competencies necessary to fill one of the 3 million jobs now open in the US, the most openings in 13 years.
Another marker of disruptive innovation is unbundled modularization. Universities have bundled together teaching, residency, entertainment, sports, tutoring, coaching, and counseling, to name a few. On the other hand, a finite set of competency clusters (nine to be exact) has been identified that include foundational skills, personal and social skills, and content knowledge. Note that these extend well beyond simply technical skills, into soft skill areas formerly thought to be the exclusive domain of liberal arts colleges. Without unbundling, a professor must be a subject matter expert who is excellent at instructional design, academic coaching, tutoring, assessing, and teaching. Through unbundling, innovative schools can address specific needs with much lower priced offerings, and better address the needs of today’s non-consumers of higher education.
Weise acknowledged that higher education should prepare students for a career, not just their first job. Indeed career paths today are more are unpredictable than ever. There is no reason that preparing for a first job is mutual exclusive with preparing students for their careers. The unbundled competencies taught by the innovative schools can set the foundation for a lifetime of evolving careers.
New potentially disruptive providers of education include General Assembly, Pluralsight, the Flatiron School, Nanodegrees/Udacity, Hack Reactor, Dev Boot Camp, Minerva, Coursera, and Mozilla OpenBadges. These entities are not tied to the business model that constrains the country’s top educational institutions. Yet, according to the model of disruptive innovation, these providers will continue to scale the quality of their product, using technologies like competency-based education, online production values, electronic assessment, and learning analytics.
Meanwhile, the top 250 colleges in the country must continue to make sustaining investments in order to compete with each other. Unfortunately, these investments consist of better residences and dining halls, more student activities, and retaining the top campus professors; all of which drive up the cost of their tuition. By contrast, disruptive products or services “take root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”
Other day one sessions, which I’ll review in subsequent blogs, described how online testing is revolutionizing education in ways you would not expect, and how technology is enabling better personalized and adaptive education and helping to reduce costs.