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Mapping Higher Ed’s Future: Placing Disruption and Identifying Underserved Populations

The EvoLLLution | Mapping Higher Ed’s Future: Placing Disruption and Identifying Underserved Populations
Identifying where on the disruptive spectrum is a critical exercise in launching an innovative transformation, but then comes the more concrete exercise of defining groups the institution can or should be serving.

At Oregon State University, we are halfway through a yearlong initiative to identify innovative ideas that will have a positive impact on future revenue generation for the institution. As the Special Assistant for Innovation, I have assembled a six-member innovation team with the charge to identify and explore under-served and unserved audiences that could generate new revenue for the university while enhancing learner success. Over the course of this yearlong initiative, we will be posting updates on The EvoLLLution, and the article introducing our work on this can be found here.

To bring you up to speed: The team has been benchmarking other efforts including the work happening at CSU-Global, fixed-price degrees at Georgia Tech, the EdPlus program at Arizona State, the entrepreneurial incubators at 1871 in Chicago and 1776 in Washington D.C., the Red House Innovation Center at Georgetown, and many others. We have also talked with innovators in the higher education sector including Kai Drekmeier from InsideTrack, Bridget Burns from the University Innovation Alliance, Kim Thanos from Lumen Learning and Melanie Ho from Education Advisory Board, among others.

Our goal in these conversations has been to identify common ideas about how innovative thinking will improve learner success at scale in higher education. What’s next on the horizon? Who are we serving well now, and who could we serve more effectively? As you might imagine these were fascinating and challenging discussions.

Our focus on disruptive innovationas defined by Clayton Christensen et al—led us to identify a spectrum of innovation from totally disruptive to more sustaining ideas. Totally disruptive means something we are not doing now and may not even be thinking about. We called these ideas the furry little mammals running around at the feet of the dinosaur. The other end of the spectrum included sustaining ideas—meaning ideas that might be on the radar somewhere, but have a focus on making sure the current enterprise continues on a successful path.

One conclusion we arrived at quickly was that this is truly a spectrum, not a light switch. Ideas are not either just disruptive or sustaining; they land at many points on the spectrum between. The more disruptive they are, the more risk is involved, and in many cases, the greater potential for return.  However, in the effort to be more customer-facing and responsive to audience needs, we found some ideas moved up the spectrum to the more sustainable side.

The question we’re grappling with is: Where along this spectrum do we find the ideas that are disruptive enough to generate adequate revenue to justify the investment needed, while still being able to fit into our existing institution foundations? Truly disruptive and innovative ideas might have long-term payoff but require a significant amount of investment in shifting the infrastructure. We realized return-on-investment is a critical priority. When Christensen and others suggest it is difficult—if not impossible—to “disrupt from within,” it is this balance point between investment required for internal disruption and the ROI that surfaces.

Keeping that in mind, our team initially developed background material and needs assessments on 41 unserved and underserved audiences. We broke this list down into a series of overarching groups, including employees who study, those looking to change jobs, those seeking best-in-world content, industry-specific audiences and corporate partners, under-represented students, and those who value experiential learning. At this point, although it was very tempting, we tried hard not to immediately resort to developing solutions. As the saying goes, if the university is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Instead, we spent two days systematically going through the information we had gathered on these 41 audiences and their needs. Each team member had a chance to make the case for the audiences of their choice. We debated and discussed, and then debated again.

Ultimately we narrowed the list down to six, including:

  • Community college transfer students
  • Employees who study—post-traditional leaders
  • Corporate partners
  • Bootcamp learners and new entrepreneurs
  • Hotel and hospitality partners—focused on outdoor recreation and other curriculum
  • Learning and Outreach focused on social issues

Over the next nine weeks, we will begin to develop prototype solutions to the needs that we have identified for these audiences. Then we will begin testing these prototypes with sample audiences, revising, rebuilding and retesting when necessary. Also during this timeframe, we will begin to narrow the list of six to three, as we test the size of the audience along with both the potential for success and the ultimate return on investment.

We have begun working with a set of local consultants, the Innovation Catalyst Group, who will help us deliver three investment-grade proposals by June 2017. As we noted in the original article, these proposals will include a review of the market potential, including size and depth of the target audiences, the value proposition the university provides these target audiences and its link to the university’s competitive advantages—meaning what is it we do best for these new audiences—the timeline to potential fruition, and the investment required along with the potential return on that investment.

In addition, as you can see from the lists, we will provide a pipeline of potential ideas that can be brought to reality over time as the factors associated with the timing of their potential success mature.

This is where it gets interesting. We’ll keep you posted here on The EvoLLLution as the project comes to fruition.