Disruptive Technology is Driving New Ways of Learning

Why This Matters!

I was surprised at the comments I received about my rant about the need for disintermediation to transform higher education.  You can read them yourself, but the sense of the comments is that neither students, parents nor employers thinks the system serves their interests.  My call to consider disruptive technology changes in the way higher education is formulated, packaged, priced and delivered hit a responsive chord.

Technology has transformed other industries to their core, but my experience putting three kids through college leads me to conclude that the cost of higher education is out of control and that the education system at all levels today is being run for the benefit of the faculty and staff rather than for the students and their prospective employers.

As an employer I discovered that where my new employees went to school mattered relatively little compared to their personal motivation. I had relatively little luck recruiting graduate students for my Sacramento-based software services business out of the University of California, Stanford or the Ivy League schools.  The students often felt ‘entitled’ and had unrealistic expectations about salary and position relative to their skills and experience.  I had much better experiences recruiting to find the quantitative analysis skills in math, economics and related fields from the smaller schools, from the H-1b candidates eager for placement and from the agricultural economics programs.  Not only were the students better prepared to actually work, they often were a better fit for the small team work environment I had to offer.

I think the reason for this was that these smaller programs and their students were more focused on their opportunities to learn, be part of a successful team and contribute in meaningful ways to their employer’s success.  I am not trying to trash Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Stanford or other big brand schools but they are in the business of training future faculty not the future workers in the changing industrial and professional industrials America needs most.  America today does not need more faculty, we need more entrepreneurs, more business leaders, and more engineers, economists, scientists and math majors to fill our technical professional jobs to regain our competitive advantage and project it forward.

Change is Never Easy but it is Constant

My purpose in this supplemental discussion of the future of higher education is to begin a process of listing ideas for specific disruptive technology and business model strategies that might free higher education from its Ivy Tower prison and put it back to work to grow America for the future. Please feel free to add your own ideas as comments to this article.

  • Scale and Low Cost.  Lloyd Anderson was Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs of the University of Southern California.  He knows a few things about how universities work.  Since leaving his administrative role to return to teaching in 2005 he has been focused on the questions of disruptive technology in education.  He says that one of the factors driving up the cost of college education is that there has been a shift in the balance between teaching, research and service that have been the goals of education.  As research grew more prominent, teaching began to take a back seat in academic promotion, status and income.  Professors focused on research were highly sought by research universities and that competition for research talent to get research grants is a key factor in rising costs.  The service and social development third leg of the university goal structure has largely been capitalized building ever more sports complexes, residence halls, social facilities and meeting spaces.  That infrastructure required maintenance, staffing and the means to run them.  Another important disruptive attribute is low cost and scalability. Anderson has been telling his academic colleagues that their day of reckoning will come when competitors in education will peel off teaching and use the blending learning and digital technologies now being perfected in corporate training programs worldwide to privatize education, driving down its cost by cutting out the research and service legs of the university goals and leave the university behind with research professors but fewer students and great infrastructure begging to be used.
  • Networks for Learning.  Just as the Internet and Google have changed the way we do research and discover new information, universities are really the snail mail version of networks for learning.  The interplay of teaching, research and service was created to feed the needs of the university community for the information and experimentation needed to teach and practice the scientific method evolved over time.  Digital information access and pace of change in both volume of information and its application are creating a new culture of learning that is continuous and always changing and democratized. Our universities must find ways to stay relevant in this new culture for learning.  The cold, hard truth is that the best schools for new technology, applied science, learning today may be in start-ups, in the military, in business driven by competitive threats and disruptive change.  The culture of learning these organizations is essential to survive the ruthless Darwinian process of consolidation and disintermediation.   These new sponsors for learning are finding that while they want access to the brightest minds at our universities, they cannot tolerate its cost, rigidness, slower pace of change and lack of adequate preparation of future employees it turns out as graduates.
  • Digital Learning.  In California the budget cuts have made it difficult for students to get the required classes they need to complete their degree programs.  Rather than focus on limited capacity traditional classroom settings why not use the same type of digital learning solutions that business has used to train employees.  These solutions are scalable so that students can progress at their own pace and structured to allow self-testing so each student discovers the parts of the class curriculum they ‘don’t get’ and then go back over that material until they can successfully complete the course examination.  U.S. Department of Education has studied the effectiveness of online compared to traditional classroom education finds that students performed better in online courses but those that blended online and face-to-face instruction produced the best results because students spent more time-on-task, had more control over their own learning and allowed greater opportunities for personal growth and reflection. This solution is also being used in remote or isolated countries lacking in the infrastructure and technology their workers need.  Why don’t we use is more?
  • Blending Digital Lifestyles with Digital Work StylesIn a world long past we used to have apprenticeships to teach students their craft and pass on the wisdom of generations of craftsmen.  Internships today are a far cry from the apprenticeships of the past, but the concept is still a valid and valuable one. Technology can make education more relevant to the digital lives we lead and the use of technology in our work places can give new life to the apprenticeship of the future that is part of our new digital culture of learning. If universities partnered with business and other employers we could create a more seamless pathway between formal education and the lifelong learning that is essential given the rapid pace of technology change we face.  One example where this is being attempted is the Open University in the UK.  Its degree programs are deliberately focused on just such blending.  Such blending creates potential well beyond improving the quality of university education, the partnering enables companies to continue to leverage the expertise, research and teaching skills of the university to train and retrain employees through more collaborative relationships.

These disruptive change concepts are at work today throughout our business and social life.  We celebrate them when they make our life easier, our business more competitive and profitable, but we have not insisted that our institutions of education from k-12 to graduate schools also adapt to make the most cost effective contribution they can to scalable growth in our economy for the future.

When will we realize that it is not necessary to waste so much money to support an increasingly ineffective and unsustainable process of educating our children and future work force when this new culture of digital learning, collaboration, and focus on essential skills development.  Disruptive technology will change more than the way we train students and our workforce for the future, its biggest contribution will be to upset the political deals, budget plans, and tenured professor protections that get in the way of progress in its ruthless, fearless, and insatiable process of change.

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