Disruptive Innovation Serves the Students Who Need It Most



What an idea – when something quits working, try something else!   For instance, the way higher education works – or, increasingly, doesn’t work – in 21st century America.

Alana Dunagan, head of the Clayton Christensen Institute’s higher education task force, takes this good old American admonition to heart.   In a new report she shows how five U. S. universities are successfully experimenting with ways of meeting educational challenges that don’t respond to older notions of workability.   The Christensen Institute dedicates itself to “disruptive innovation” – making products “simpler, more affordable, and more accessible,” capturing customers at the low end of the market who are “over-served by existing products.”

How does that mission pan out in higher ed?  Well, we learn from the report that Arizona State University has set up a Global Freshman Academy, offering a second chance to students, many of them foreign, unable to qualify for college admission according to the traditional template: high school grades, SAT scores, etc.   ASU challenges academy students successfully to complete eight on-line courses.

Northeastern University offers a coding and analytics boot camp.   Success is defined by student outcomes in the workplace.

The University of Wisconsin targets has devised programs targeted to the needs of adult learners, and Southern New Hampshire University links students and employers in a competency-based degree program.

And so on.

“Business models,” the Christensen report declares, “are cracking under enormous pressure as state appropriations decline and net tuition growth wanes.  Business as usual simply can’t continue.”   Hence technology comes into play, with its recognized resources and especially, perhaps, its sensitivity to the needs of customers.  Have we thought about that one long and hard enough?  The needs of customers?   The mismatch of student credentials to the needs of the marketplace is a national scandal, and a major cause of business’ much-commented-on inability to fill many jobs that go begging.

Overhaul of the present academic model need not be total, and shouldn’t be, in that the opening and disciplining of the mind is the primary mission of academia – not the pursuit of full employment.   Still, universities have long served as training grounds for employment as well as agencies for the molding of citizens.

Disruptive innovation is, well, disruptive, and not always to the taste of the stability-minded.    Not every disruption can possibly be good or advantageous, or even workable.  But that’s why you try things out when other things see deficient or defective.   They ought to know this in higher ed.  In some department or other.  Ask around next time you’re on campus.

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