Innovation on Campus: Changing the DNA of Higher Education

Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring|Authors, “The Innovative University"
Wednesday, 28 Sep 2011 | 12:34 PM ET

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Change is Coming to a College Near You by Clayton Christensen, and Henry Eyring, BYU-Idaho Advancement Vice President, are authors of “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.”

Real innovation isn’t common in higher education, especially at the most prestigious schools.

They are presumed to have gotten where they are because they have the formula right. Their nearest competitors try to be more like them, not to find novel ways of outdoing them. In an academic world where nothing succeeds like success, innovation is rare because it is seen as risky, even foolhardy.

The Innovative University
The Innovative University

But change is coming to higher education.

For-profit universities, which have nothing to lose in the prestige game, are testing powerful new learning technologies and operating models.

They’ve made mistakes, and they’re paying the price in onerous new regulations. But those regulations will make them stronger, more focused on helping students to learn and graduate with valuable capabilities. The for-profits will not only have to deliver these outcomes, as the best traditional institutions do, they’ll have to document them.

Soon the choice facing new students will be between prestigious-but-dated traditions and generic-but-demonstrated results.

That competitively untenable either-or-choice will require even the most elite universities and colleges to innovate.

The most successful innovators will be able to promise prospective students the following:

You can start college in high school. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses offer good learning experiences, but they don’t allow students to start in on their major field of study, as many are prepared to do in high school.

The most innovative institutions will offer online versions of not only their general education courses but also the introductory courses for majors. Students who choose this route will be able to complete one or more years of college in high school, taking courses designed to produce the same learning outcomes as the on-campus equivalents. These students will save money by living at home, and the excitement of that first year of campus life will be undiminished. They’ll arrive on campus with greater confidence and maturity. But they may or may not be in a hurry to go off to college, because they’ll have discovered that…

Learning happens where and when you want it to. The traditional model of higher education reflects the technological limitations of the Middle Ages.

Until relatively recently, even the computers had to take their assigned seat in class, at a “tech station” controlled by the human instructor. But the ubiquity of high-speed Internet access is changing the learning playing field in a way that the computer alone didn’t. Students can now access sources of information—including one another—in unprecedented ways.

Higher education is facing its first truly disruptive technology. What that means for the traditional university or college is that its brick-and-mortar campus and faculty of scholars are optional learning aids, albeit powerful ones. Young students who can afford the price will be well advised to seek a campus learning experience, at least for part of their time as students; some of the most important learning outcomes will always be realized in a face-to-face community of learners. But even students who chose to pay the costs of coming to campus will be unwilling to submit to the traditional schedule of day-time classes and long nights of hitting the books.

In fact, students of the future will be assured that…

We don’t lecture, and you don’t carry textbooks.

The expert lecturer set the great universities apart for centuries. But the lecture, which now can be captured and sent around the world at little or no cost, is no longer unique to the university where the expert works. And it was never the best way of helping students to become experts themselves.

The same is true of textbooks. Listening to lectures and reading textbooks pale compared to learning techniques of the early universities such as dialogue, experimentation, and personalized coaching. As enrollments swelled in the twentieth century, lecture and textbook-focused learning simply became the mass-production alternative.

Now new technologies, including online discussion forums and computer-adaptive tutorials, allow an inexpensive but potentially effective return to the group dialogues of Socrates and the one-on-one discussions with Oxford dons. Rather than entirely replacing face-to-face learning, online technology enhances it. Students can prepare for class via interactive, adaptive online tutorials that include the content formerly delivered via lectures and textbooks. They can also tutor one another in small-group discussions, which may occur online or face-to-face. When they arrive at class they are prepared to be led by their professor in high-level explorations like those of the best law and graduate business schools.

Future of Innovation - See Complete Coverage
Future of Innovation - See Complete Coverage

This hybrid form of learning is better than either purely online or purely face-to-face instruction.

Learning is deeper than it traditionally has been at even the best universities and colleges. It is also less expensive, allowing institutions to make good on the pledge that…

You can graduate without debt. Online learning technology allows universities and colleges to achieve scale economies through growth, just as successful businesses do. As they add fully online and hybrid course offerings, their existing physical facilities can accommodate many more students. (That is especially true as they increase their summer offerings, another move students can expect to see in the future.)

These technology-enabled scale economies allow institutions to grow their way to lower cost without sacrificing learning quality. The lower cost can be passed on to students; growth-oriented institutions can charge less for all courses, but especially for the less-expensive online ones. Depending on a student’s choice of on-campus and online courses, it is possible to earn a degree at a fraction of the traditional cost and even without debt.

Few universities and colleges, including the for-profit ones, currently make good on all of these promises. But disruptive technologies will lead to competition that drives everyone to better meet students’ needs. Discerning consumers of higher education—students, parents, public policy makers, donors—should begin testing providers’ commitment to the promises that innovation now makes possible. In so doing, they’ll hasten our brighter higher education future.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Professor and world-renowned innovation guru, and Henry Eyring, BYU-Idaho Advancement Vice President, are authors of “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.”

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