Published on 2015/08/25
The EvoLLLution | Disruptive Innovations in Higher Ed Emerging From Outside Mainstream
The real disruptions to the traditional approaches to higher education are occurring outside the academy, at coding bootcamps and other non-institutional education providers.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to explore the barriers to and opportunities for innovation. My full written testimony is here.

In my remarks, I clarified what disruptive innovation is, as the theory is all too often misunderstood and misapplied. I explained that disruptive innovations carry four rules worth noting. They typically start by serving non-consumers outside of the mainstream—areas where the alternative is literally nothing at all. They tend to be simpler than existing services, so the elite and the sector’s leading organizations tend to dismiss them. Accordingly, they both redefine the notion of what is quality and performance, and they don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory structures. Third, incumbent organizations cannot successfully adopt them within their core operations. And finally, they predictably and reliably improve over time to tackle more complex problems to transform a sector into one that is more affordable and accessible.

In education, online learning is the first disruptive innovation since the advent of the printing press. Combined with competency-based learning—in which students progress upon true mastery of their learning, not because of an arbitrary time-based measure—there is a big opportunity to transform our higher education system into a more affordable, student-centered one that is able to serve many more students.

True to form, we are seeing a variety of potentially disruptive organizations powered by online learning emerge from outside traditional higher education. These upstarts are reaching those students who need more education but for reasons having to do with convenience and accessibility, simplicity and cost, are at that point in their lives, non-consumers of traditional higher education. The organizations are generally simpler, more focused institutions than our traditional colleges and universities and do not look like traditional higher education; they do not have four- or even two-year programs, they lack breadth, they do not do academic research, and they don’t have grassy green quads. Accordingly, the existing regulatory structures do not know how to judge them. Even as many of our traditional institutions of higher education have paid lip service to the innovations these new entities are unlocking, by and large they have not harnessed their disruptive potential themselves. And although they are starting by solving simple problems, we can predict with certainty that this upstart sector as a whole will improve to solve more complex problems and further blur the lines around what is higher education.

Exciting innovations are emerging from colleges and universities using online, competency-based learning, but given that President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University was testifying about that sector, I focused my remarks on three other groups of organizations that are, in classic disruptive fashion, emerging from the fringe outside of traditional colleges and universities.

One such group is broadly known as the coding bootcamps, although they are moving beyond simply teaching coding skills. They typically combine online learning with brick-and-mortar co-working experiences to offer students short, intensive, focused programs to help students find jobs with their new skillset. And they are growing fast. As a result of their length and focus, they are far more accessible than traditional higher education for thousands who cannot go or return to a traditional institution of higher education for the length of time it would take to receive the corresponding skillset. In many cases, this just-in-time education is offering learning opportunities that would not even be available on many traditional campuses. And alternative financing mechanisms are emerging to help students afford the experience and send students signals about which programs offer the more promising pathway to success. General Assembly is arguably the poster child for the sector. It reports having a 95-percent job placement rate into a student’s field of study and is transforming higher education from a destination into an experience that one returns to over and over again through a journey of lifelong learning.

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Readers Comments

Gabe King 2015/08/25 at 4:56 pm

This is how is always goes, the back and forth between the hallowed halls of the institution and the rebels at the fringe. There would be nothing to learn from, nothing to build on without the institutions, but nor would the institutions have a line to the changing environment of education without the ones on the fringe bringing innovations into the mainstream where colleges and universities can adopt them.

    Erwin Bedford 2015/08/26 at 9:23 am

    I think in addition to that back and forth, we’re also seeing a paradigm shift in the way new information is (or isn’t) passed from one to the other. Rather than simply doing new things first, these innovators are doing things that colleges and universities simply can’t do. It will be interesting to see how things shift from here.

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