Reinventing the University – Thoughts on Where and When

By | July 15, 2014

Cover articles of The Economist are always worth reading.  However when the June 28 edition led with “Creative Destruction: Reinventing the University” I was more than a bit interested to read what one of the world’s leading news magazines would say about a topic so close to my own heart.  To be sure, the magazine had previously reported on the potential disruptive effect of MOOCs but a cover story promised much more.

On the one hand I was not disappointed.  They conclude simply that “… as an alternative to an overstretched, expensive model of higher education, they [online education approaches] are more likely to prosper than to fail.”  As much as I agree with that sentiment, they were a bit remiss in not discussing several aspects such as the role of research at universities but also in not examining the timing and location of this disruption — it certainly won’t be the same everywhere.

For my part I don’t have a crystal ball, but a number of excellent studies on service sector innovation can give us some clues.  In particular, we know that innovation in services almost always starts with automation of existing processes.  This typically leads to much welcome improvement in efficiency and often quality. However it is only much later, once familiarity with the new tools sinks in, that one sees fundamental changes in the service itself.

The implication, to me at least, is that the places to look first for fundamentally new models of higher ed are where there are no or few existing solutions.  Much like copper wire has been passed over for wireless communications in the developing world, one can expect new models for universities to first appear in the developing world where the need is great and there are fewer existing universities to change.

Domestically, we’ve seen a great deal of automation and technology applied to improving our existing models of higher ed.  These have been worthwhile efforts but I for one am looking forward to bolder experiments in the coming years!

With warm regards, Damian Saccocio, Co-founder, Course Gateway

PS: For those interested, the Reverse Product Life Cycle model described by Barras is well worth a read.  The model asserts that innovation in service industries flips the classic model from Utterback where product features change rapidly early on, gradually giving way to process improvements (e.g., consider how important process innovation came to be in the automobile industry after features became standard).