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Innovation In Our DNA

Innovation In Our DNA
Some of the characteristics of BYU's "disruptive model" have been part of the Standard Operating Procedure of continuing education units for years. Photo by Mira66

I recently finished reading a new book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and co author, Henry Eyring, an administrator at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Striving to address challenges in U.S. higher education today, this thought provoking book is worth reading and discussing. Lessons extend beyond the U.S. context and it definitely is relevant to the field of professional and continuing education.

We all know the mantra of big challenges in higher education today: access, affordability, quality. Beyond these, accountability is probably at the forefront right now. The number of reports, commissions, initiatives, laws, and regulations related to assessing various outcomes of higher education has proliferated in recent years. Some include the Spellings Report, The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ Voluntary System of Accountability, National Survey of Student Engagement, The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), University of California’s annual accountability reports, not to mention regional accrediting bodies and other state and federal regulation, including the Canada HEAD program.

The good news is the U.S. higher education system remains the envy of the world. In virtually any ranking of universities globally, U.S.-based institutions dominate the list. Especially for its population size, Canadian institutions rank highly as well.

Within this context, Christensen and Eyring offer their book that centers around the history and development of two very different private U.S. institutions: Harvard University and Brigham Young University (BYU)-Idaho (formerly Ricks College).

According to the authors, Harvard University has hands-down become the traditional model for most of higher education whereas BYU-Idaho has become a recognized innovator, offering a disruptive model of higher education.

First, what do they mean by “disruption”?

Based on Christensen’s long-standing research in a number of fields, market disruption occurs under two major conditions: “growth in the number of would-be consumers who cannot afford the continuously enhanced offerings [in a given product segment] and thus become non-consumers. . . . [and] the emergence of technologies that will, in the right hands, allow new competitors to serve this disenfranchised group of non-consumers” (p. 16).

Classic examples of disruptive innovations include transistors that entered the market through cheap radios and personal computers that got their start through a low-end, amateur market segment. Both technologies eventually came to dominate their respective markets. For more detail on these ideas, see The Innovators Dilemma also by Clayton M. Christensen or these slides from a March 2011 presentation by Christensen.

Circling back to higher education, Christensen and Eyring identified principal elements that define the traditional dominant model of U.S. higher education today (e.g. “Harvard model”) adhered to or emulated by most postsecondary institutions (p. 136).

  • Face-to-face instruction
  • Specialization/departmentalization
  • Long summer recess
  • Graduate program dominance
  • Private fundraising
  • Competitive athletics
  • General education and majors
  • Academic honors
  • Tenure and rank for faculty
  • Admission selectivity

They argue most of the elements, like specialization, selectivity, and many extracurricular amenities (plush housing and large athletics programs) contribute to high cost. As more and more institutions strive to move up the higher education classification system (e.g., community colleges that begin to offer four-year degrees or regional comprehensive institutions that strive to become research universities), costs continue to escalate.

In contrast, most continuing and professional education divisions within universities already practice many elements of the “disruptive model” of higher education, part of the DNA of BYU-Idaho, described in the book (p. 308, 322). These include:

  • Full year-round operation
  • Modular majors
  • Online courses and degrees
  • Higher compensation and term contracts for faculty
  • Broader definition of faculty scholarship and teaching emphasis
  • Metrics related to desired outcomes (e.g. graduation rates, cost per student)
  • Increased enrollments and access
  • Reduced campus amenities
  • Lower cost

Some of us may recognize many of these elements also exist in programs offered by for-profit educational institutions. Such providers serve former non-consumers of higher education, adults who were not able to access traditional higher education for one reason or another. It’s disruptive innovation in action. (With recent scrutiny and negative reports of many for-profit institutions, unfortunately, many of these elements may become suspect in and of themselves).

The bottom line for me goes like this:

  • It’s not an either/or formula: traditional or disruptive
  • There are good, workable ideas in Christensen’s and Eyring’s disruptive model
  • A selective, modular approach seems reasonable since “one size” does not necessarily fit each and every institution

The role of continuing and professional education

Continuing and professional educational programs go even further in terms of disruptive innovations in higher education. Some additional components of innovative DNA among continuing and professional education divisions include:

  • Variety of programs, including non-degree certificates
  • High access/open enrollment
  • Financial accountability and transparency due to high degree of financial self-support
  • Relevance and connection to regional workforce needs
  • Innovation in terms of program, format and business processes
  • Partnering and outsourcing expertise
  • Faculty development
  • Agility

The main take home message from the book: In what ways might traditional vs. disruptive elements foster a robust dialogue and offer tangible actions (taken as a whole or more likely in components) that could lead to high quality, high accessibility and holding the line or decreasing the cost of higher education?

There’s a lot that continuing and professional higher education leaders can contribute to a conversation about such “disruptive” ideas as accountability, quality, access, relevance, and affordability in higher education.

Or seen another way, given that the CPE units have integrated these practices all along, the practices may not be quite as disruptive as initially thought. This was a review of “The Innovative University” by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring. To learn more about the book, please click here.

Author Perspective: