Mainstreaming the Disruption


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Mainstreaming the Disruption

  1. 1. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 1 of 8 Mainstreaming the Disruption: Five Recommendations for University LeadersJeremy B. Williams, Director, Asia Pacific Management Centre, Griffith Business SchoolMarty Fletcher, Director, Open University Australia Programs, Griffith Business SchoolEven those who do not follow the education industry closely will be aware thatthere is something big going on the higher education sector right now. Typethe words ‘disruptive innovation in higher education’ into Google and you get3.2 million results. Type in ‘crisis in higher education’ and the number ofresults rises to 98.3 million.The problem, very simply, is that after holding out a lot longer than otherindustries, disruptive competition underpinned by technological innovation andnew ways of offering learning and credentialing is now assaulting the staidand hallowed halls of academe. One could be forgiven for thinking that thewalls will hold and nothing dramatic is going to happen inside the institutionany time soon, because most academics appear content to go about theirbusiness in much the same way as they have for decades. The reality,however, is that while this cyclone may not be upon us yet, there is nowabsolutely no time for complacency as we can see its formation and likelytrajectory clearly on our radar.The risks associated with doing nothing are very high. So high, in fact, that thevery existence of some institutions may be at stake. High quality educationcan now be delivered online cost-efficiently, and at a price point that providesconsiderable value for money to the consumer. Furthermore, althoughtechnology is fundamental like warm ocean water is to a developing cyclone,many of the hazards lie in the composition of our existing infrastructure – ourcurricula and related business models – and as the strategic barometricpressure drops, those provider entities who are structured with more flexibleand robust ways of offering learning and credentialing will better withstand thestorm.There are many challenges ahead, and they need to be addressed quickly. AsLarry Summers, the former President of Harvard University, commentedrecently in the context of the burgeoning interest in online learning, ‘thingstake longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen fasterthan you think they could’.US businessman, Mark Cuban, is more forthright in his views and predictsthat higher education will go the same way as the newspaper industry. Heargues that legacy infrastructure, employee costs and levels of debt will makeit difficult to recalibrate to a new generation of competitors and, by the timeuniversities realise they need to change their business model, it will be toolate.To mitigate these risks, we propose five initiatives, aligned with the principlesof disruptive innovation, that would help to insulate an institution from the This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  2. 2. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 2 of 8disruption that is set to engulf the higher education sector in the next 1-3years: 1. Unbundle higher education servicesThe economics of higher education has changed and, as a recent Moody’sreport highlights, not even the Ivy League is safe. On the supply side, fundingis becoming more problematic given the difficult economic times currentlyexperienced by many countries around the world and the resulting increasedpressure on the public purse. On the demand side, potential consumers arebecoming more price sensitive as they weigh up the ‘pros and cons’ ofinvesting in higher education. Put simply, a university education can no longerdeliver employment where there is a high probability of earning income torepay debts accumulated while studying. This problem is particularly acute inthe United States, and also in the UK, albeit to a lesser extent.The business model has to change to incorporate a greater diversity ofservices and corresponding sources of revenue while, at the same time,leveraging existing resources and rationalising curricular offerings andcomplexities. For this to happen, there has to be a departure from thefundamental assumption that the institution producing a course must be thesame entity that delivers or certifies the course. Once a university hasovercome this psychological barrier, it is possible to think differently abouthow it might create value without compromising its brand. If, for example, auniversity were to commit resources to the digitisation of its curricula, thiswould open up a number of possibilities including the provision of curriculumpackages to third parties. Prospective clients might be foreign tertiaryinstitutions or private education companies, who might certify students usingtheir brand, or courses might be customised for a corporate client, and theyprovide the credentialing as the employer of the students.To ignore these opportunities may no longer be an option. The demand fortertiary education has never been higher because of the rapid populationgrowth in South Asia and the shortage of skilled workers throughout East Asiaand other parts of the developing world. Private equity firms are filling the voidbecause universities have been so slow to respond because price points areso low. Volumes, on the other hand, are astronomically high. The missingingredient is an innovative, scalable and sustainable business model forhigher education services given these market conditions. 2. Integrate digital learning technologies across all curriculaWhile this might come as a surprise to some people, the virtual world is nowvery real world. Just think about the amount of time we spend each day usingdesktops, laptops, tablets or hand-held devices. We do business online, wesocialise online, and we find life partners online. Access to information andcommunication technologies (ICTs) is no longer strictly the realm of the geek;it is part and parcel of life. This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  3. 3. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 3 of 8Universities are chock full of ICTs. Walk into any classroom in a universitythese days and it looks a bit like a technology park. The big question, ofcourse, is the extent to which all this hardware is actually serving to enhancelearning. It is highly unlikely – except in a small minority of cases – thatstudents will be using their devices to spend time on a Blackboard coursewebsite, for example. This is because putting your course ‘online’, for manyacademics, amounts to little more than uploading PowerPoint lecture slides.Universities can learn a lot from other industries that have been disrupted bytechnological innovation. Consumers in these industries are empoweredthrough digital media where there is social engagement within onlinecommunities of people with shared interests. Consider, for example, howsuccessful The Guardian newspaper has been in reinventing itself. From adiscrete, broadsheet newspaper that had limited interaction with itsreadership, it is now transformed into a multimedia online news business, inwhich readers are active participants.A similar paradigm shift is required in higher education. Just as the digitalmedia has democratised the way we engage with the news, it must alsoinfluence the way we engage with the curriculum. The present generation ofuniversity students have grown up only ever knowing a digital, sociallymediated world. This is how they learn. Until they come to university, at least.A useful first step would be the jettison the word ‘e-learning’, which nowbelongs to some bygone era when all we did was point and click. This maynot seem like a big deal, but if we continue to use the ‘e’ prefix, there is a riskthat online delivery of curriculum will continue to be treated as a ‘bolt-on’rather than an integral element of learning design. To reiterate an earlierpoint, the virtual world is the real world. Technology has transformed bankingand commerce to such an extent that, seldom, these days do people makereference to ‘e-banking’ or ‘e-commerce’. Similarly, it is time for e-learning tosimply become learning.Step two must be to digitise the curriculum of all programs to include richlearning activities, appropriately contextualised to provide an authenticlearning experience, with sufficient opportunities for peer interaction andindividual student reflection. These learning resources would be available toall students whether they attend classes on campus or at some other location;be it their home, workplace or maybe a partner institution overseas. In sodoing, an institution develops capacity in two key areas that will provide acompetitive advantage in the brave new world of higher education; (i) greaterflexibility in delivery of programs to take advantage of new marketopportunities, and (ii) reputational capital in digital pedagogies that will serveto build the brand of the university. 3. Redefine roles and workloadsThe biggest danger associated with the transition to a fully digitised curriculumis that the transition is piecemeal in nature. What might happen is that the oldmodel simply works a little bit harder. Rather than there be a genuine This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  4. 4. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 4 of 8paradigm shift, there is an attempt to transplant the traditional on-campusteaching model into the world of online learning [emphasis added]. In otherwords, the existing pedagogical model remains largely intact.In order to avoid this eventuality, there needs to be a fresh approach tocourse development and delivery that brings together a team of people withdifferent skills and attributes comprising academics, curriculum consultants,blended learning advisors, educational designers, librarians, and studentservices staff.This new approach will necessarily require different formulae for determiningequitable workloads. It also requires a different lexicon of terms to thattraditionally used. For example, the word ‘lecturer’ or ‘instructor’ may nolonger be appropriate as it connotes a different type of pedagogy that is atodds with the creation of a student-centric learning environment. Instead, therole of the academic is one of facilitator or mentor, where they guide thestudent through the learning process. There may also be different types ofroles for academics, especially if, as a consequence of the digitisation of thecurriculum, it becomes possible to deliver courses on a large scale. It couldbe, for example, that experienced, senior academics with a well-establishedresearch profile take on the role of course convenor with oversight ofcurriculum development together with a limited input to course delivery,perhaps a series of short webinars. Junior academics, meanwhile, could playthe key supporting role, moderating online discussion and gradingassessment items. There would be a classroom component to this, of course,so a webinar may be conducted in a physical classroom with students inattendance, and the act of discussion moderation might be an activity from thedigitised curriculum that is scheduled for a synchronous on campus session,rather than an asynchronous online session.Academics – as the subject matter experts (SMEs) – also have a role to playin the digitisation of the curriculum, but this is where other course teammembers contribute in a big way to relieve pressure on faculty members whohave other competing interests on their time, not least of which is to publishresearch papers in learned journals. This is a critical issue that must not belost as an institution makes haste to transform its pedagogical model. Indeed,embracing digital pedagogy can make an academic’s life easier, freeingprecious time for research and other scholarly pursuits. This outcome isdependent, however, on the across-the-board acceptance of a new division oflabour, and the internal funding model for these labour resources.A senior academic given overall responsibility for the digitisation of a coursewould, in all likelihood, feel very daunted by the prospect unless their level ofdigital literacy was particularly advanced. The reality of the current situationthat most universities find themselves in, however, is that this is the exceptionrather than the rule. The amount of time and funding required for professionaldevelopment to ‘up skill’ people is not an option if speed to the marketplace isconsidered to be a critical factor. The solution, therefore, is to draw on theexpertise you have elsewhere within the institution. This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  5. 5. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 5 of 8Librarians, for example, are probably the most information literate ofindividuals in a university and, therefore, the most proficient of contentcurators. Academics can create their own content, and they also know whereto find good content because this is what makes them SMEs. It does notnecessarily follow, however, that either of these parties will have the skills topackage this content into a coherent whole, where there is constructivealignment of learning activities and assessment tasks that directly address thelearning outcomes. This is where curriculum consultants and blended learningadvisors have a part to play, by providing advice on course structure andoverall learning design. Finally, there are educational designers withknowledge of best practice in the use of new technologies and multimedia.These are the individuals with the technical skills to ensure course contentappears on screen in a format and style that is intuitive and easily navigablefor end users.All these non-academic staff are already in the employ of universities. Theproblem, however, is that their cost is typically treated as an overhead; a taxcollected by central administration. This is a mindset that needs to change ifdigitisation of the curriculum is to proceed apace. The work of curriculumconsultants, blended learning advisors, educational designers, and librariansis now very much core business and needs to be treated as such in theoperational plans of the faculty groups charged with the responsibility ofdelivering courses. Service level agreements with the areas providing theseinformation services need to reflect this new imperative, and the number ofpeople employed in providing these services will need to be increased asdemand for their skills rises.In the process of the digitisation of the curriculum, there will be demonstrationeffects. There will be a cross-pollination of thinking as individuals withincourse team learn from one another. Formal professional developmentsessions can be organised concurrently, but the bulk of the ‘up skilling’ cantake place on the job so long as an open and collaborative work culture is inplace. 4. Get serious about service quality and who gets the valueIf there is one word that sticks in the throat of university academics andadministrators it is ‘customer’. Woolworths has customers, and so does RioTinto, but universities have ‘students’, notwithstanding the fact educationservices are the nation’s fourth highest export earner. Student as client is aphrase that is considered slightly more palatable in that it draws on theprofessional/ client metaphor for conceptualising the relationship betweenfaculty and students. In the final analysis, however, it does not matter whetherstudents are referred to as customers, clients or plain old students. What doesmatter is service quality.The quality of service matters for two reasons; (i) the proportion of householddiscretionary income expended on higher education has increased over timeand consumers justifiably demand value for money; and (ii) in an increasingly This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  6. 6. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 6 of 8connected, socially-mediated world, gaining a reputation for low servicequality can be difficult to shrug off.Prospective university students these days are far less likely to seekinformation from a glossy brochure. Instead, they will rely on their personalnetworks to see what other people (existing consumers) are saying about theuniversity in question and the programs it is offering.At a practical level, this does not necessarily mean spending large sums ofmoney on sophisticated customer relations management (CRM) systems, butit may mean some reallocation of existing resources. With a digitisedcurriculum and an easy to capture record of student interactions online, itmakes sense to embed student services personnel within an onlineclassroom. The key point here is for student services to be proactive. That isto say, they attempt to forestall problems before they arise. For example, if astudent has not logged in to the system for several days, a student servicesofficer would make contact with the individual concerned to check if there is aproblem and ascertain whether they can assist. This kind of personalisedservice is viewed as good value by the student and assists with thedevelopment of reputational capital.The economics of an enhanced commitment to service quality also makessense. Current student attrition rates are unacceptably high when oneconsiders the expense associated with student recruitment. 5. Transition from VLE to PLEIt is important for pedagogy to guide decisions about technology and not theother way around, and yet there is relatively little debate in academic circlesabout the limiting effects of the proprietary virtual learning environment (VLE)(or learning management system (LMS)).The observations of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (author of Program orBe Programmed), provide greater clarity on this issue. Rushkoff notes thatpeople tend to think of technologies as being neutral and it is only their usethat determines their impact. For instance, he points out that guns do not killpeople, people do. Pillows can also be used to kill people through suffocation.Guns, however, are much more biased toward killing people than pillows.Similarly, educational technologies come with their embedded biases, andsome will be more biased towards deeper learning than others.Herein lies the problem in the way the VLE is typically employed inuniversities. Far too often, the platform serves as little more than a receptaclefor the storage of files, and when there is some capacity for interaction, ittypically takes place within the confines of a clunky threaded discussion forumwhere the user experience bears little resemblance to that of the popularsocial media platforms used routinely by learners in their private lives. The netresult is that creativity is stifled, engagement is lower, and learning isconstrained. This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  7. 7. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 7 of 8As academics, we are far too accepting of the VLE. It must be okay becausethe university has just upgraded to the latest version. The reality, however, isthat outside the walls of the proprietary system, people are unshackled andfree to curate, connect and create. This is what it means to be literate in thedigital age, and while individuals will develop these so-called 21st skillsdespite the rigidities of the formal education system, if there were a genuinecommitment to a learner-centric, participatory pedagogy, in which anindividual had more control over how they learn, the returns to society oneducation dollars spent would be much greater.As Clay Johnson has acknowledged, the role of software developers isbecoming increasingly important. In the context of higher education, how thisplays out will depend very much on whether universities can free themselvesof the lock-in they are experiencing with dominant players like Blackboard.Instructure’s Canvas platform appears to represent a serious challenge to thismonopoly power and its open, outward-facing platform is an excitingdevelopment because, among other things, it effectively allows the student toengage via the social media platform of their choice. In other words, itexplicitly encourages the use of their personal learning environment (PLE) forformal study; e.g. Wordpress, Twitter and Facebook, and aggregators, likePinterest,, and Diigo.This is significant for two reasons. First of all, students use the VLE becausethey have to, whereas they use their PLE because they want to. Taking awaythe ring-fence from around the institutional VLE and allowing the integration ofstudents’ PLEs is a major development because it gets away from theteacher-centred, one-size-fits-all approach and encourages a more organic,learner-centred model in which students are more active participants.A second advantage associated with an open, outward-facing platform is thatyou are able to integrate the new tools next year that no one has eveninvented yet. To stay ahead of the game these days, versatility is everything.The inward-looking institutional VLE, by contrast, is always playing catch-up,and when the company supplying it has such a large market share there is nopressure on them to innovate. A university can make all the feature requests itlikes, but there will be no response until there is a critical mass of usersmaking the same request.Summary and conclusionsIt would take a brave person to accurately predict what the higher educationlandscape will look like a few years from now. However, with serious questionmarks over the viability of the current business model, and the emergence ofdisruptive innovation from outside the traditional university sector, a wait-and-see approach carries significant risks for some higher education institutions,particularly those who have engineered themselves with 20 th century ‘HarvardDNA’.Yet there is every opportunity for younger generations of institutions, applyingsome disruptive principles of their own, to redefine higher education for the This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.
  8. 8. Williams and Fletcher, Feb 2013 8 of 821st century. The recommendations outlined in this paper, taken as a whole,can assist in this regard and contribute to the development of new, moresustainable business model for university education. This paper is in draft form. Please do not cite.