The following interview is with Peter Stokes, executive director of postsecondary innovation at Northeastern University. During our last interview, Stokes mentioned that the higher education industry has yet to see a truly disruptive innovation. In this interview, Stokes explains the difference between disruptive and other innovations in a little more detail, and shares his thoughts on what he thinks the next major edupreneurial innovations will be.
1. In our last discussion, you said we have yet to see a truly “disruptive” innovation, as defined by Clayton Christensen, in the higher education space. What would be the characteristics of a truly disruptive innovation in this field?
Well, Christensen first defined the notion of disruptive innovation in his 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and he’s written about it extensively since then. … The key characteristics of disruptive innovation, the way that Christensen defines it, are these: disruptive innovations are typically more affordable, they are easier to use and, perhaps most importantly, they create demand among a new set of customers. So you’d be hard pressed, I think, to find any activity in higher education that meets those three criteria. The fourth element of it is that, ultimately, the disruptive innovation gets taken up by this new class of customers and then becomes increasingly mainstream, so it starts winning over customers from the earlier incumbent providers.
So, Christensen, in his “Innovator’s Dilemma,” talks about the mainframe computer industry being supplanted by the personal computer. He talks about various hard drive providers being displaced by newer entrants. He talks about the way in which mini-mills created disruption for traditional millwork and so on. So, you need that more affordable, cruder, easier-to-use, creating demand among a new set of customers that ultimately catches fire with the larger market. There is a distinctive kind of innovation which he also discusses, which is a sustaining innovation — and that’s really delivering better products to achieve higher profits and maintain market leadership. And there are all kinds of innovations that thriving companies and universities engage in, in order to achieve those objectives. And it’s quite possible that online learning — which is often thought of as a disruptive innovation — is much more likely to truly be a sustaining innovation; it certainly hasn’t supplanted traditional higher education. That’s one way we might say that nothing truly disruptive has been introduced into higher education yet.
2. Looking 10 years into the future, into what areas do you think edupreneurs will look to introduce “disruptive” tools?
Well, I think that probably the biggest gateway to disruption, if that’s your objective — and I would also just add that there are other forms of innovation, whether we call it sustaining or not, that are relevant, but disruptive innovation is a particular kind of change in a marketplace and is certainly not the only way you might think about value and change in innovation — but, if what you’re looking for is stuff that’s truly disruptive, I would point toward attempts to rethink credentialing and perhaps especially around competency-based assessment. So that organizations are able to break the lock that accreditation currently bestows on institutions that may award degrees, at least in terms of how the market views their relevance.
So, we’re starting to see institutions like Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire University which take a much more explicitly competency-based approach to credentialing. And, if we allow for some experimentation in that area, we might start to see some newer entrants who don’t face this barrier to entry that is accreditation. So that’s probably the most significant change that we would see in the near term in higher education.
But there are other things as well, if we look at peer tutoring, for example, the potential for a more peer-driven approach to student support — that has the potential to reduce costs to make things easier for consumers and to create some new engagement with higher education. And you can think of things like livemocha.com, which is a language learning website in which individuals teach one another languages that they each know, that could perhaps be a model for that sort of thing.
I think the other thing that’s really inevitable and important is just increasing the mobility around learning. If you think about it, today you can deposit a cheque with your smartphone. You can file your taxes with your smartphone. It ought to get easier and easier for us to interact with learning materials, to interact with institutions and to interact with our faculty and our classmates with those kinds of platforms so that learning really can be untethered and follow the learner and not be so closely chained to the classroom. So I think those are all areas where we’ll likely see some continued work. Whether we ultimately cross the finish line into something disruptive remains to be seen.
3. Staying on this topic, what do you think will be the three most innovative tools introduced to the higher education space in 10 years’ time?
Three is a lot!
I think that there’s one important and significant innovation horizon and I think that’s around adaptive learning. And, so, there are a variety of different forms of adaptive learning, but essentially these are software platforms or digital courses or applications that take a more data-driven approach to measuring student progress through a course or a program. And what these adaptive systems do is actually change their behavior based on the behavior of the learner and they ultimately develop a learner profile, so that as the student moves through a curriculum — let’s say it’s around learning a language— the system will understand which elements of the curriculum the student gets quickly and which elements of the curriculum the student is taking longer to master. And [the system] is able to serve up contents, course material, examination in ways to actually test the student where he or she actually needs to be tested. So, to play to the strengths, but to continue to develop the weaknesses.
That takes learning into a much more personalized direction and ultimately these adaptive tools, if they’re disseminated widely enough, could follow students not just through their progress through a course, not just through their progress through an entire degree program, but potentially over the lifetime. And they could take that tool with them into the workplace and it could be a kind of living register of their learning experiences and be available for them on an as-needed basis for when they need to recall something they’ve learned in the past and they could have this spontaneous curriculum served up to them so they could once again reengage with that material, master it again and then be able to apply it to their current environment, whether that’s a professional environment or a study environment.
I think adaptive learning is the thing that’s on the horizon that really has potential to change the way we think about assessing. To change the way we think about using class time and applying faculty. And to change the way we think about how learners interact with their learning experiences of their lifetime. So I think that’s really going to be one of the more exciting developments in the coming years.
4. When you think about the development of a learning adaptive tool, do you think that is likely to come out of the edupreneual side of the industry? Or is it likely that an institution is going to spearhead the development of such a tool?
Well, I think up to now it’s been a combination of the two. So, in the [United States], the adaptive learning platform that probably has the most visibility is a company called Knewton. And Knewton has been working with Arizona State University for quite some time. They’ve co-developed some instruction around remedial math. Knewton has a relationship with Pearson Learning Solutions, the publisher, and is starting to bring other Pearson content into the platform and they can work the whole variety of content providers.
That kind of collaboration between entrepreneurs, software companies, statistics experts and algorithm experts with higher education leaders, experts, subject matter experts — that’s really what’s needed to make these tools realize their full potential. Some of these tools do originate from the R&D divisions within universities and then those folks go off and start entrepreneurial ventures. So it’s much more, I think, of a mixed ecosystem and not so much either institutional or purely industry.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the major edupreneual innovations that we’re going to see over the next decade?
Well, I think that the important thing to understand is that innovation is important if it increases value for all the participants in the exchange. And so, in a higher education context, there are lots of participants. There’s the learner, there’s the instructor, there’s also the institution. There are all of the downstream beneficiaries of that interaction, so that means employers, that can in some cases mean parents who are covering the costs of the education experience for younger students, that can mean taxpayers whose investments are in part subsidizing education and ultimately that means the economy, the regional economy and the national economy. So there are lots of beneficiaries.
Innovation really ought to be about improvement at that level. I think that the focus on disruptive innovation and transformative change is causing us to miss some of the more local, more modest, but still relevant, innovations that are taking place in the marketplace all the time.
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