Apocalypse Later

By Peter Stokes, executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University

Published on January 10, 2013 in Inside Higher Ed 

Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.

“The best vision is peripheral vision.” – Nicholas Negroponte

Back when I was a carefree grad student, some 20 years ago, I decided to write a dissertation about apocalyptic discourse. The millennium was then looming on the horizon like a Mayan baktun or a disruptive innovation, threatening to bring about the end of the world as we knew it. In one corner stood those who confidently predicted that a comprehensive desolation would be visited upon everything that we’d once held sacred, and in the other corner stood those for whom the clanging bell of the millennium would most certainly signal the restoration of a profound peace and a lasting illumination.

Who could resist stepping into a fight like that?

Not only did it sound like fun to tell them they were both wrong, but it also seemed fundamentally true. I felt pretty confident, for a start, that the world wouldn’t really end.

I feel much the same today when I confront yet another breathless news story about whatever latest innovation (hint: it’s always a MOOC) is going to change higher education utterly, for better or worse, full stop. Except it doesn’t, and they never do – film didn’t change education utterly, television didn’t, the computer didn’t, and the Internet hasn’t. After all, I write this to you from the cozy corner of a major urban research university; the old ways are still very much with us, even as we make way for the new.

While I don’t want to lay the blame for all of this apocalyptic rhetoric at the doorstep of Clayton Christensen, I would still like to have a word.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a longtime fan of online learning (as well as classroom learning; I’ve studied and taught in both environments, and each has its strengths). I also like change as much as the next person – whether it’s the sun coming out in December or a shiny new iPhone. All of these things have something to recommend them. But do any of them portend the end of time? I don’t think so.

I read Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma with real interest back in 1997 when I was an IT market analyst. I even reviewed it for a trade newsletter. I think his theories of “sustaining innovation” and “disruptive innovation” offer interesting tools for understanding how a variety of industries have evolved at particular moments in the past.

Whether these theories can be used to predict the future, however – well, I’m not so convinced.

For example, I was surprised to read the following prediction from Christensen’s Disrupting Class in 2008: “by 2019, about 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online.” I already knew back then that the penetration of online learning in higher education was nowhere near approaching that level, and I also knew that higher education was far advanced in its experimentation with online learning relative to high schools. While Christensen and his co-authors had some interesting mathematical models to draw upon to support their prediction, common sense and recent history seemed to suggest that the revolution probably wouldn’t come as early as they’d anticipated. In fact, if the prediction turns out to be true in six years’ time, I’ll eat this article.

My real beef, though, isn’t with Christensen. He’s a smart man, even if he’s still something short of a prophet. My real problem is with the acolytes – and I urge any young readers out there considering a dissertation of their own on apocalyptic discourse to keep an eye out for these types. Acolytes tend toward reductivism, simplification, and speaking very loudly. And often they mangle the prophet’s core message in the process, occasionally even inverting it.

Take disruptive innovation. Please.

In higher education, at least judging by the recent conferences I’ve attended, far too many people have come away from Christensen’s work (or whatever second- and third-order echoes of it they’ve picked up from the media) with the idea that, if we all try, we can simply disrupt ourselves. And that way, nobody has to lose a job or a research grant or move back to the home office.

Among this strand of believers, “disruptive” innovation appears to be synonymous with “cool” innovation, or even simply “change” – or even, more simply, “the status quo.”

What these believers forget, or perhaps never knew, is that Christensen uses the concept of disruptive innovation as a means of describing how the giant company is so often killed by the little guy with the sling shot – a sling shot that just happens to be cruder, easier to use, less expensive, and more attractive to a heretofore unengaged set of new consumers than the giant’s weapon of choice. In other words, if genuinely disruptive innovation does occur within higher education, traditional universities are much more likely to play the role of the giant than the innovator.

And yet some of the more attentive readers of Christensen’s work have taken to heart his hopeful message that the only way for incumbent leaders to survive these market disruptions is to create new and separate business units of their own, free from profit pressures and growth strategies of the core business, and allow them to break all the rules en route to coming up with “the new, new thing” that will prove to be the true category-killer. If any institutions within higher education succeed at disrupting themselves, it may be the few that have adopted this model. But for those institutions working desperately to preserve the rules and still somehow survive in a dynamic market – the ending may not be the one they expect.

In the months ahead, I’d like to use this column to reframe and refocus the conversation about innovation in higher education. All of this talk about disruption has become a distraction – an apocalyptic tick. It reminds me of that great line from Tolstoy, “He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace.” Let’s leave that aside for the time being and look at productive change in higher education from a different vantage point.

“The best vision,” Nicholas Negroponte likes to say, “is peripheral vision.” New ideas are out there – in the margins, away from the main frames of reference. Their immediate effects may be small or local in scale, but they can gradually introduce meaningful improvements to mainstream practices. In this column I want to examine some of the interesting experiments taking place in the margins of our field of vision – experiments that may well inform how we refine our approach to delivering higher education going forward.

Along the way, I’d like to propose that we focus on a humbler but still worthwhile form of innovation – the kind that isn’t dependent upon hype, gadgetry, a singular eureka moment, or the game-changing end of all that came before it. I’d prefer to focus on the kind of innovation characterized by a planned and responsible approach to strategy and management, the kind that continuously seeks to transform products and services in ways that are more responsive to the evolving needs of the contemporary marketplace, and which, as a consequence, delivers enhanced benefits to all participants, whether they be students, faculty, administrators, parents, governments, or the public.

And let’s assume the world is still there with us, too.

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