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May 02

The How of Disruption in Higher Education

I have not written about innovation or disruption in higher education, on Creating the Future, for a while, although I do write about it on my branch campus blog.  This post will be published on both.  (The blog addresses are www.branchcampus.blogspot.com and www.drcharlesbird.com/creatingthefuture.)

I’m intrigued by the rapid progress of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other online options, but the trigger for this post is the pushback we see, especially from some faculty members.  The defense of traditional classroom education seems disingenuous, appearing to suggest that all faculty members create vibrant learning environments and transform students into sophisticated critical thinkers, even as students also acquire undefined benefits from the residential experience.

Actually, there are remarkable professors out there, and I know full well that important growth can come through the traditional experience.  The issue is how consistently this happens, whether we might find less expensive ways of creating these experiences, and whether the level of debt students are taking on is worth the gain (still undefined and unmeasured).

That said, I also think many defenders of the status quo fail to understand how new developments will disrupt traditional higher education.  Remember, disruptive improvements begin by serving current nonconsumers.  In this case, they attract audiences that are unserved or poorly served by traditional options.

In the case of higher education’s future, like it or not, the issue is money.  Residential education, specifically, has become so expensive that nearly all non-elite institutions fail to cover their cost of operation, especially given declining state support for public education, without extraordinary increases in tuition.  What some have called an “arms race” to compete for students has gone too far.

The result, as I’ve written many times, is that many institutions require the revenue from branch campuses, online programs and other sources, to survive.  If the “primary” activity is going to lose money, then something else has to offset that loss.

To cause disruption, it isn’t necessary that most students turn to MOOCs or other low-cost options.  All that has to happen is for main campus financial losses to grow larger, and for enough nontraditional students to choose lower cost routes to their goals, to cause many institutions to begin a slide into oblivion.  Add in the developing trend of some employers to value the credentialing of skills over degrees, and we have the opportunity for disruption.

Once institutions pass the tipping point, change will seem to come quickly, but the reality is that it is happening across a much longer period of time, as a result of traditional campuses over-reaching.  This is why second- or third-tier institutions will suffer the most.  Elite public and private institutions will be fine, although they will need to make some adjustments.

Finally, when critics attack new delivery options, especially with regard to quality, they essentially are attacking a straw man.  Disruption moves upstream, from serving nonconsumers to serving traditional consumers, by improving quality through experience.  I believe our culture values education, and few are addressing how the “psychology of going to school” will impact choice.  Nevertheless, even if many people prefer a traditional, residential education, institutions have an unworkable financial model that seems ready to collapse.

As always, leaders who understand how to empower branch campuses and online programs for entrepreneurial outreach have the advantage.  Some institutions will thrive, but to do so, they must understand the challenge.