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‘Disruptive Innovation’ Is No Elixir

Why traditional forms of higher education are often more effective than the new models
University Business, September 2012

It’s been a surprise to see how eager many college trustees, foundation officers, and government officials are now for the same freedom students and faculty members enjoy on campus to try out new ideas. Many have become enamored with the idea of “disruptive innovation,” drawn from Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). Arguing that incremental change is often inadequate when organizations face altered circumstances, he asserts that disruptive innovation is the best way to re-position an organization. His main examples relate to hard disk drives and excavators. “Disruptive innovation” quickly became the battle cry of American industry.

Since the 2007 financial implosion, the book has been referenced frequently as applicable to colleges. Perhaps pressures from all sides—rising costs, decreased financial support, maturation of new technologies, and the meteoric rise of for-profit education—have made colleges more receptive to unorthodox remedies.
Rarely has a concept been as frequently invoked but misapplied as the idea of disruptive innovation in higher education. Every college that missed its annual fund goal, every faculty senate that let curricular reform sputter, and every college with classrooms that aren’t overflowing has been in the crosshairs of trustees, journalists, and government officials who believe disruptive innovation is the instant fix. Foundations have piled on, with grant programs to support only breathtaking innovations, and characterized the status quo ante on campus as wholly unresponsive to change.

To listen to many of these earnest outsiders tell it, colleges have neglected low-income students for 50 years, teach mostly irrelevant subjects, and demand too little from faculty. For-profit education providers critiqued traditional education (we now know, thanks to Senator Tom Harkin, disingenuously) and spent vast sums to market blatantly false claims, but not before the critique became standard fare in media coverage.

If journalists can be excused for formulating stories as controversies even when none exist, foundations forgiven for a predisposition to favor disruptive innovation over sustaining excellence, and business leaders who serve as college trustees for over-eagerness to initiate dramatic change, it’s harder to exonerate state and federal officials when they misinterpret or ignore facts and instead adopt the remedy du jour.

The inconvenient truth: Higher education in its traditional forms remains educationally more effective for most students than new models. To propose the substitution of a wholly online degree for a campus-based college education—as Texas Governor Rick Perry has done—without clarifying what the online program won’t include misleads young people and their parents to believe the two are equivalent. Yet, when colleges 1) engage students in the learning process through interaction with faculty members and fellow students; 2) require a broad-based program in the liberal arts; and 3) treat activities outside the classroom as purposeful parts of education, students achieve more during college and in their careers, are more involved in their communities, and express a higher degree of satisfaction with the overall quality of the education they received. (See here.) 

Arguments for a New Way

Advocates of nontraditional approaches sometimes concede that online courses are less effective educationally, but insist that such courses are more cost-effective. This argument, too, is overstated: The presumed price advantage of the nontraditional approach all but disappears because the higher attrition rate and longer time-to-degree overwhelm any savings.

The higher attrition rate and longer time-to-degree overwhelm any savings of the nontraditional approach.

Advocates for nontraditional approaches also claim only they reach underserved students. Yet, for students with identical “at risk” factors usually associated with lower degree completion rates, such as low-income and first-generation college-goers, the more successful performance is usually found in traditional institutions (see here and here).

Hardly a journalist, foundation officer, or policy official in America has not received incontrovertible statistics on these points from independent researchers and college presidents alike. The unproven remedies nonetheless continue to be prescribed for maladies that are themselves exaggerated. Profound misunderstanding of the mission of a highly selective, affluent research university led University of Virginia’s trustees to embrace “strategic dynamism,” an approach to change unsuited to the modest degree of difficulty that the university faces.

Journalists, donors, and policy officials may forget that disruptive approaches will succeed only when local circumstances warrant radical change. Take the example of Southern New Hampshire University, a small, traditional, private institution that hoped to become distinctive when Paul LeBlanc became its president in 2003. LeBlanc has been a remarkable leader. His vision—largely realized a decade later—was to make SNHU truly accessible to nontraditional students and thereby to increase enrollment, financial health, and visibility. LeBlanc describes what he has done as predicated on Christensen’s ideas, and Christensen is an SNHU trustee.

Under LeBlanc’s leadership, SNHU offers a three-year bachelor’s degree for the most self-disciplined students, a “no frills” degree at a low price for students who hope to save money, and an extensive online program for students whose work and family obligations make traditional classroom schedules impossible. But LeBlanc would be the first to point out that these programs aren’t for everyone. They address needs that are different from those of most students. It is significant that SNHU continues its traditional residential undergraduate program.

LeBlanc understood well that circumstances at SNHU differ from those found elsewhere. For example, his state’s universities charge very high tuition and fees compared with public colleges in other states; New England is dominated by private higher education; the New Hampshire government recently opened a branch campus of the state university in Manchester (even though SNHU and other private colleges have ample capacity to expand); and like many northern states, New Hampshire is losing population, especially young people. The obvious point that the state government’s subsidy of expanded capacity at the private colleges would have required far fewer tax dollars than starting a new campus was lost in the shuffle. In light of these factors, SNHU felt enormous pressure to become distinctive, and it has.

Disruptive Changes

Are there circumstances when other colleges and universities ought to consider disruptive changes? Yes. The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), for example, in working with many large state universities, has demonstrated convincingly that student learning will increase, costs will decrease, and fewer students will drop out from giant lecture courses when technological delivery of course content is used instead of lectures. In some ways, this model sustains and improves the traditional model, rather than replacing it, as massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) claim to do.

A direct relationship exists between student success and face-to-face learning and co-curricular experiences.

It would be a mistake to extrapolate the NCAT approach to all courses at state universities, to any courses at highly selective institutions where nearly all are self-disciplined learners, or to smaller colleges where no economy of scale can be gained after making the investment to convert a course to a technology-based approach. Some policy gurus and technology executives argue that everything worth learning can be made available on handheld mobile devices, so “place-based” education is no longer necessary. They, too, are unable to rebut evidence that shows a direct relationship between academic and postgraduate success, on the one hand, and face-to-face learning and residential and other co-curricular experiences, on the other.

Are there other colleges that have been transformed quickly? Yes, especially among smaller private colleges that are nimble, flexible, and entrepreneurial. The circumstances of these successful disruptive innovations are always sui generis. Notre Dame of Maryland University has imaginatively integrated a pharmacy school and a women’s college on the same campus, a combination many people believed to be impossible. And the University of Charleston (W.Va.) adopted the “checklist” approach surgeon and writer Atul Gawande introduced to hospitals, with amazing quality improvements.

Higher Standards

Is a campus-based education necessary? Everyone knows the story of how college drop-outs Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made good. Earlier generations grew up hearing of children of immigrants enrolling in low-priced, non-residential institutions and becoming successful adults—or even about those who educated themselves through public libraries. In America, there are many routes to success.

But none of these stories offers an attractive universal model for a country in which two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college and expect to have opportunities to do so. Nontraditional approaches offer neither a way to meet the national need for more people with advanced knowledge in critical fields (such as scientists) nor a way to acculturate young people when public schools, churches, and the military do not.

We must strengthen the colleges and universities we have, make them more efficient, and motivate them to aspire to even higher standards of intellectual achievement. The way to fulfill those goals is not to jettison a model of higher education that works extremely well in most cases to adopt approaches that are effective only in highly specific circumstances.

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