Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'Disruptive' innovation in post-secondary ed

The potential disruption to the traditional, centuries-old higher education model has been a hot topic in traditional and trade media in recent months. Bill Gates' proclamation in August 2010 that technology would make traditional, "in-person" colleges and universities less relevant was widely reported. Clayton Christensen, considered the father of the theory of disruptive innovation, turned his attention to post-secondary education with "The Innovative University" with co-author Henry Eyring (Jossey-Bass, July 2011). Forbes magazine ran an overview of the book and Q&A with the authors in September, "Can Higher Education Be Fixed? The Innovative University." More recent essays on the topic include:
    •    Ryan Craig’s essay in Inside Higher Ed, Adventures in Wonderland, which contends that it is not the massively open online courses--or MOOCs--that will truly disrupt traditional post-secondary ed, but rather competency-based training.
    •    Jeff Selingo's A Disrupted Higher Ed-System on The Chronicle of Higher Ed's site.
    •    Sarah Cunnane's Stormy waters ahead as ‘disruptive forces’ sweep the old guard on Times Higher Education.
    •    Saul Garlick's An Ecosystem for Innovation in Higher Education on Huffington Post.
With online enterprises such as Udacity, University of the People and Khan Academy to name a few, can universities continue to maintain their same traditional model? Why does every university need to have, say, in-person lectures of Physics 101? Why not have the very best professor of physics do the lectures via videoconference, webinar or other technology with each university offering small labs and discussion groups with its own professors? Are gradual evolutions enough to keep universities relevant? Do universities need to change more radically, more disruptively to stay relevant?


  1. Colloquy said "Why not have the very best professor of physics do the lectures via videoconference, webinar or other technology with each university offering small labs and discussion groups with its own professors? "

    Are you suggesting that the U of A *doesn't* have "the very best" professors and needs to farm out the teaching of its students to others?

    I am a professor here and I'm damn good at what I do, both when I'm explaining concepts in large lectures, and discussing issues in smaller seminars.

    And that's not even getting into the value of actually being in the same room, listening and participating in real time, with the person delivering the lecture.

  2. Why not have the very best professor of physics do the lectures via videoconference, webinar or other technology with each university offering small labs and discussion groups with its own professors?

    So, the UofA wants to "admit" that its professors aren't that good, and it's better to have the "best" professors elsewhere "piped in" so that local dimwits can conduct labs and discussion sections. Great business plan there! Lots of success getting the provincial government to increase (or even continue) funding for the UofA on that basis.

    It's good to know that the administration of this university is run by people who have clear understanding of the implications of what they say. Bravo.

  3. Who is paying the "very best professors" to teach all students world-wide? Will they be paid "per lecture"? or per course their lectures are being used in?

    Which brings me to the issue of intellectual property. Who owns those lectures? The "very best professors" who write and deliver them? or the university they work for? Will they be paid just once, when the lecture is freshly delivered?, or if the lecture is used multiple-years, will they get royalties each and every time the lecture is played?

    How will merit be decided? If enough universities pick up my lectures to teach their students, will I get larger and larger increments? and from just my home university, or all the ones where I teach students?

  4. To Anonymous 1 and Keyser Soze,

    Your hostility is oddly fascinating, the immediate offense taken. Maybe we did not read the same post; I see nothing in the post that says these suggestions are specific to the UofA. There is nothing here that has not been suggested by others. But let's say it is about UofA.. If UofA has the best physics teachers--and it probably does--then clearly other universities in Alberta (Canada?) don't. Why not have UofC & UofL pay to have those outstanding profs deliver lectures to their students as well? Not likely to happen in our lifetimes, but an interesting concept.

    Anonymous 2 (9:32): Great questions and reasons why I can't imagine this happening any time soon!

  5. @Anonymous #3 -- there's you assuming that you're one of the "very best" professors and so will be selected to teach world-wide, rather than one of locals who can't be trusted to lecture to your own students but rather only can hold discussion sections to facilitate discussion of someone else's teaching? Why has determined that you're "the very best"?

    Seriously, who is going to make these determinations -- who can and who can't lecture to students? Course evaluations? Publications? Peer Review? Are you the very best teacher because you're engaging in the classroom and students love you, but have a spotty research record? Or are you the very best teacher because you have a CV a mile long, but students find your lecture style boring?

    This post is remarkably similar to the GFC meeting attended by Gwyn Morgan who lectured GFC on how to better run a university (and he is very fond of this "disrupted" model); I thought at the time that that meeting was just to let us know what "the other side of the river" thought. Now, I'm beginning to wonder if there wasn't more to it.

  6. This is certainly a creative way to 'fix'the problem of large numbers of core courses taught by temporary staff.

    Sure ... most of would have thought a solution would be to hire permanent staff ... never even considered the business model of simply stopping to teach core courses.

  7. "Do universities need to change more radically, more disruptively to stay relevant?"

    Please define your use of "relevant" and provide some evidence that universities (or at least the U of A) is not relevant.
    From what I can tell, this has nothing to do with relevance and everything to do with bottom lines.

  8. The 'disruption' has happened already. The discussion concerning the academy is fully done by PT Anonymous voices! It is bad enough, while probably it can get much worse.

  9. Could you please explain how such steps would have anything to do with keeping the University "relevant"? How do you define the University and its chief aims, and how does "relevance" factor into these? Relevance to what or whom?

    A university that pursues and implements bad ideas being implemented elsewhere in the name of keeping itself "relevant" would take a significant step away from defining itself as a vibrant place for the researching and teaching of ideas by its own "talented people." Indeed, it would appear a good deal like a reckless teenager pursuing the latest fad.

    I trust that no educator could have written this post for "Colloquy," and have to ask why the University is using its official blog for the dissemination of such an idea. The University seems of late to have taken the position that the creation of controversy is the same as the shaping of important thought.

    Whoever is making these statements for "Colloquy" on the University's behalf might find it a great help to take a seat in some of the University's classrooms for a few lessons about what thinkers across time and cultures have thought about thought, and the dynamic fora in which it most productively takes shape. And then perhaps this forum could be used for the posing of an original idea about how to ensure that the University remains a place for great teaching even as other universities, in the name of 'relevance,' take terrible decisions. As Henry Marshall Tory wrote to Rutherford in 1906, "If you take any steps in the direction of a working University and wish to avoid the mistakes of the past, mistakes which have fearfully handicapped other institutions, you should start on a teaching basis." Start, and continue.

  10. An interesting consequence of such disruption is that core courses that presumably don't change much from year-to-year or place-to-place (say, introductions to physics, chemistry or statistics) could be "taught" just once, by a single person, and then re-broadcast around the world for years to come.

    With appropriate dubbing or subtitles, you'd only need one professor teaching Physics 101, once, to meet the needs of the entire world for a decade.

    Of course, why stop with teaching? Does every University need its own Administration? There's 80+ University Presidents in Canada alone. Why not just employ one Administrative super star to manage the lot? They could video conference as required, and employ minions at each site for those rare occasions when face-to-face meetings are required.

  11. Right. Let's only have a big set of VPs (a few more, as we definitely do not have enough) and just a bunch of seasonals for labs. Great business plan. Surely will bring the university to the top in rankings.

  12. There seems to be the idea that 'core' material to a subject is invariant, such that the curriculum is independent of individuality. In such a model, of course there is a business-logic to reducing 'redundancy' in delivery.

    However, this view is ignorant to the realities of how curricula are developed. As an author of a textbook used in a 'core' science course across Canada, I can safely say there is lots of subjectivity in both what gets included/excluded, and how it is presented. The individual voice provides the context and interpretation. My own experience is that 5 different profs using the same text deliver 5 different classes, all of which are accurate.

    This is the point of scholarship - to understand and interpret knowledge; to think critically and evaluate thought.

    The idea that learning is simply memorizing has no (major) role in a leading University. Those who promote it are hopefully not amongst our Administration.

  13. Innovatey!

    Let's ask, though, what choices rich people will be making for their own university-age kids. Will they be plopping them in front of computers to watch the digital delivery of skill-building content? Or will they be sending them to elite institutions? And will these elite institutions have researcher-teacher professors, and actual buildings, and grassy quads, and will students there be encouraged to enjoy a few years of intensive self-cultivation, including but not limited to going to actual courses, talking to actual faculty, reading, writing, participating in actual research, forming relationships with one another, sometimes even doing stuff like protesting? ON CAMPUS?

    Where will U of A administrators making 6 figure salaries be sending their own children? Huh.

    The point of public education has been to extend this kind of experience beyond the elite classes (where it long has been, and long will be, enjoyed) to bright ambitious idealistic young people of all social classes. We haven't even begun to achieve this in society, but already the attempt is being rolled back.

    Hey! Let's put it to a popular referendum. Let's ask the people of Alberta if they want young Albertans to have the opportunity to enjoy the same educational experiences as rich kids, OR if they would prefer Alberta's young people be certified by computer in as expedited a fashion as possible. Let's additionally explain to them that their taxes are going to be the same either way, because this "innovatey" new form of education is going to cost a bucket of money to be paid to the administrators who have proposed and are going to implement it.

  14. To anonymous @11:17 pm

    I see nothing in the post that says these suggestions are specific to the UofA. There is nothing here that has not been suggested by others. But let's say it is about UofA..

    Well, I dunno about you, but when something is posted on what purports to be the "official blog of the University of Alberta" (as the header states), I don't take it as being idle talk of no particular import. And since the president of the university was quoted in an Oct. 21, 2009 article in the Edmonton Journal as ruminating on the possibility of delivering first-year Physics courses in precisely the manner described in this blog entry (which "fascinatingly enough" cites Physics 101, I'd say that what we have here is much more than idle chatter.

    If UofA has the best physics teachers--and it probably does--then clearly other universities in Alberta (Canada?) don't.

    I have no idea what this is even supposed to mean. By what standard exactly are you judging "best teachers"? By this logic, all we have to do is pick who's the "best in the world", have that person can lectures for posting everywhere else in the world, and then all you need to do is employee some jumped-in lab and discussion leaders, and you've done away with academics everywhere (apart from that best one, of course).

    Do you really imagine that this is how you can run a system of higher eduction? Only somebody who has no conception of teaching could have such a system in mind.

  15. As someone who has taught inductory physics courses for a number of years this is not a new point of view. However I think it comes entirely from a somewhat old fashioned view of lectures, particularly physics lectures and raises some important questions.

    First it assumes that there is such a thing as the "best" lecturer. This is to some extent in the eye of the student - one student may find professor A's style easier to follow than professor B's so who is the best professor? The one with the most students who like their style...or professor C who the students do not particularly like but who's lectures imparts the most knowledge (assuming that we have an objective means of measuring this)?

    Next it completely ignores the interactive aspects of lectures. If this were not important then surely lectures would already been replaced by text books. I would argue that the most important effect of technology has been to enhance the interactive nature of large lectures e.g. clickers allow us to poll the class to determine understanding as well as provoking discussion amongst students which has been shown to be an excellent way to promote learning (see Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction). Some of my colleagues in physics were busy testing and using this technology years in advance of the University's adoption of iClickers and even I used primitive paper letter cards.

    It also ignores the impact of seeing real demonstrations which carry far more impact than recorded ones. This is particularly important for the sciences such as physics because it brings home the fact that it is not an exercise in abstract problems but describes the real world. It also let's us combine demos with the interactive nature of a lecture by getting students to predict outcomes. I have noticed that an effective demo can have a very significant positive impact on students' performance on related exam questions.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want to give my own lectures because I can relate the course to my own research. This lets my enthusiasm for the subject come through and helps to engage the students as well as showing them how even first year physics is relevant to cutting edge particle physics research e.g. simple conservation of momentum is how we will see 'invisible' Dark Matter particles if we can produce them at the LHC.

    If we replace live lectures with video we will lose all of this and end up replacing a healthy, diverse teaching environment with an unhealthy monoculture dominated by a handful of professors per subject who are deemed to be "good". Nevertheless I think that online video has an important role to play but I see it more as replacing the text book and not the lecture.

    However I do wonder why we do not have a stronger online presence with online videos. We have no UofA iTunesU page, no YouTube page and only the very limited eCast server as a means to put videos online. As a world-leading institute we should be doing just that and leading the use of online video and other techniques to improve teaching. I know from my time on the science FEC that we have some amazing teachers so if there is a demand for online lectures from excellent professors why don't we have our own lectures up and available? While I doubt that this will replace live lectures it is an excellent way to advertise the UofA to potential students and demonstrate the quality of teaching they will receive while also providing online resources to help "uplift the whole people".

  16. If the university was in danger of becoming irrelevant, there would be a drop in applicants. Since the opposite is happening in most Canadian campuses (at least west of QC), the current discussion is purely theoretical!

  17. AICT is working with Arts to pursue a UofA iTunes U site.


A moderator will review your comment before it is posted to ensure it does not violate the community guidelines. Be aware that at this time you are posting to an externally-hosted website. You have no more privacy protection than you would posting to any other site on the Internet.