Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “Revolution Hits the Universities.” Friedman’s piece was an enthusiastic endorsement for MOOCs and MOOC companies like Coursera, as he chronicled anecdotes of students and Ivy League faculty conveying their transformational MOOC experiences. Friedman tells of a Cairo MOOC student who was so moved that he is now, interestingly enough, applying to Berkeley and MIT (the delicious irony of it all seems to have escaped Friedman).
High profile journalists are not the only people excited about innovation in higher education in general and MOOCs specifically. MOOCs were recently designated the top tech trend in the “Horizon Report,” by the New Media Consortium; and in 2012 they dominated the headlines in higher education publications. In addition, we regularly read about innovation and disruption: disruptive presidents, disruptive institutions, and disruptive professors. Policy makers, administrators, and trustees are curious about everything “innovation,” and they constantly urge faculty and staff to innovate, embrace change, and adopt new technologies. In their desperation and good faith efforts to keep their institutions ahead of the S-Curve, or maybe just to get them on it, they often grasp for anything they believe will help them keep a step ahead of the competition.
Despite the flurry of paranoia and heightened attention to innovation, I am happy to report that some initial articles and accounts with different perspectives are starting to surface. This is healthy. Jeff Selingo recently wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting MOOCs may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
Amidst all the articles and conversation on postsecondary education, perhaps the man who most symbolizes modern day conceptions of innovation is Harvard professor Clay Christensen. I greatly admire Dr. Christensen (it is my dream to one day engage in a lively dialogue and debate with Dr. Christensen about postsecondary innovation at a high-profile foundation gathering, attended by several program officers eager to fund new projects). I believe his contributions to be on par with Everett Rogers and his seminal work on the diffusion of innovations. Christensen popularized the idea of disruptive innovation by studying the disk drive industry and showed how other private industries reinforced the ideas and constructs associated with his conception of disruption. To his credit, Christensen is now passionate about offering thoughts and opinions about disruption in higher education. To my knowledge, however, he has not systematically applied the parameters of his disruptive framework to the higher education industry. Also, I’m not sure if Christensen ever intended the word “disruptive” to become an adjective for self-proclaiming presidents, or journalists describing nascent technologies, or trustees advocating their institutions.
What I am sure of is Christensen’s stature means that his opinions matter. But as higher education scholars we have a responsibility. We should take frameworks, ideas, and constructs from outside our field and juxtapose them against our own knowledge of the intricacies and wonderful complexities that we know are a part of the higher education ecosystem. We should apply Christensen’s disruptive criteria to postsecondary innovations—such as MOOCs, for example—to see what qualifies as disruptive, or how disruptive ideas may illuminate our understanding of an innovation. This will sharpen our work and help us make headway into understanding and studying the true nature of innovation in higher education and its many implications on traditional and progressive values that we all care about.
So … where to start?
A good place to end today’s blog is with some questions that will serve as a basis for investigation for the rest of the week? Not answers but questions. I can honestly tell you I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but in the remaining days, we will see if together we can create a meaningful starting point for thinking about innovation in postsecondary education:
- What do we really mean by innovation? How can we more meaningfully think about innovation in postsecondary education?
- What are examples of innovation in postsecondary education?
- What is disruption? Are MOOCs innovative? Are they disruptive?
- Why does any of this matter?
About the author
Mario Martinez is professor of higher education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Mario’s writing covers innovation, change, and policy in higher education, and he has worked with and consulted extensively with several foundations and higher education consulting firms