The following interview is with Michelle Rhee-Weise, a senior research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute. Rhee-Weise is an expert on higher education disruption and is a leading thinker on the industry’s transformation. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on partnerships between vendors and postsecondary institutions and discusses whether it’s possible for a vendor to pick the wrong institutional partner.
1. What are ideal characteristics of a partnership between a service-providing vendor and a higher education institution?
Ideally, the integration of the technology from the vendor has the support of the faculty; I think that’s really important. A top-down issuance will have a very different outcome than something that bubbles up from the ground up with faculty and staff. However, it’s quite difficult for this to happen since faculty members tend to hold tightly to the way they’re accustomed to teaching. Even if technology actually enables an instructor to focus on the content and curation, so that he or she can focus more on facilitating deeper discussions in class, the immediate reaction tends to be skepticism of the technology.
The most transformative use of technology will come from faculty members who use the technology, not just virtually as a place to post their syllabus or reading materials, but as something to help reimagine the pedagogy in the classroom.
Open-mindedness is key because it will also enable the vendor to improve the product without having to justify the tweaks and failures in the system. As we saw in the San Jose State University-Udacity partnership, there’s really no room for Udacity to scale and to iterate, which is really the core of data testing in startups.
In an ideal world, the institution grants the vendor enough latitude to shift and adapt to the changing needs of evolving technologies and, in turn, the vendor respects the culture of the institution with which they’re working. So, a good working relationship and communicative relationship between the vendor and professors using the technology is extremely important but also a very delicate balance.
Each side has to believe the other side has something important to contribute that will enable them to perform better.
2. What are the barriers to partnerships between institutions and vendors when it comes to academic programming?
There are these false distinctions between non-profit and for-profit and public and private enterprise in higher education that unfairly conflate private enterprise with bad actors.
There’s definitely been some bad actors in the past that have emerged from the private sector and this has unfortunately tainted the view of for-profit enterprises. However, academics, in particular, need to move beyond this and understand there’s a much more nuanced landscape of education technology out there today. And, more importantly, institutions need to focus their attention on student learning outcomes: how can partnerships enable institutions to do a better job of attending to their students?
Another major barrier is that you have extremely complex relationships between the various stakeholders on a campus. You’ve got faculty members — and some are unionized — the board of trustees and the administration. And, at traditional institutions, faculty governance and shared governance is most often at odds with rapid innovation. The creation of new programs, or even new courses, [has] to undergo intensive vetting from faculty committees. The different attitudes toward time and implementing changes are a huge barrier to working together.
Colleges and universities are not known for moving rapidly or quickly and the rapid-fire pace of a startup, for instance, often is at odds with what can be viewed as the more glacial change of pace at an academic institution.
I think another hot topic of discussion is academic freedom, which I think ultimately will fade over time. It’s going to be quite difficult for faculty members to argue that their way of teaching the class is entirely original or copyright-worthy. It seems safe to assume the intellectual property refers mostly to the professor’s style of teaching and less about course content. …
The biggest barrier right now would be accreditation; the way in which this gatekeeping system controls what moves in and out of the gates of higher education. … Accreditors have the power to really shut down even very thoughtful experiments. Right now, because of the way in which accreditation works, it’s a form of self-governance run by the higher education institutions themselves and there’s really no incentive for this channel of institutional peers to enable the entrance of a new outside provider, especially one from the for-profit sector.
3. Often times, an institution will assess potential service providers based on whether or not they would be a strong partner for the institution. Service providers are, of course, profit-seeking and operate as businesses. However, is it possible for an institution to be the “wrong partner” for a vendor?
We usually think about these partnerships from the institution’s perspective; they put out an RFP and consider the merits of different vendors bidding on specific projects. It’s also important to consider the partnership from the viewpoint of the vendor, especially if you’re thinking about disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation presents an opportunity to really rethink the assumptions we have about higher education in the ways in which the processes and operations function within our institutions of higher education. At the same time, it’s really startling to witness how easily our systems of administration can really corrupt and stifle innovation.
I can give you an example. In California, we had Senate Bill 520, which was … a way of creating a scalable solution to attend to the thousands of students who were unable to register for oversubscribed classes (so the time to complete their degrees was getting extended and the opportunity cost of attending college was being enlarged). The reaction that occurred basically ended up watering down the bill into something that is much less interesting and won’t actually attend to the problem of these thousands of students who are shut out of these classes. What ultimately happened is the vetting processes that were built into these institutions that were going to be included in this process were basically able to affect, detrimentally, the earnest innovators who were trying to solve these problems in higher education.
If you have this cultural stance within an institution wherein they’re not open to experimenting with [a] particular vendor, that vendor could really be doomed to fail. From the vendor’s perspective, there needs to be an understanding that there is some kind of … shared culture and shared goals.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about vendors choosing the right institutional partners and the problem with the notion that service providers that make profit are somehow dangerous to higher education institutions?
It’s really only within the space of education that there is this complete reticence and extensive threat when we take a look at the notion of a private enterprise or a for-profit entering the space of what we normally conceive of as a non-profit enterprise. It’s important to remember, however, that even these institutions that we consider non-profit [may still be seeking profits]. Let me put it this way; some of the biggest institutions that do the most lobbying in Washington, DC are actually non-profit institutions.
It’s not what we just sort of assume, that the for-profit enterprises are trying to obscure transparency in higher education; it’s actually a much more complicated environment and situation. I think we need to be really open-minded when it comes to thinking about how to partner with groups that have already been in the space of education technology, in particular, and who are doing really interesting work. [Institutions should] have this open-mindedness to experiment with these new technologies and see if these vendors can really help them improve the higher education product, essentially, help improve student learning outcomes.
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- Vendors must look to partner with schools who have an innovative culture.
- Partnering with the wrong institution could be disastrous for a vendor.
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