Notes on "Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation in Higher Education" (2013)

Debate about the revolutionary potential of technology in higher education has never been more intense, nor greater in volume. For spectators and participants alike, it’s great fun. Me, I’m just glad people outside of the academy are finally paying attention to higher education.

There are two particularly loud camps in the debate. On the one hand, there are those that believe that technology is revolutionizing higher ed, providing us with better, cheaper, and faster ways of learning. The more extreme wing of this camp believe that this will very soon lead to the toppling or “disruption” of the traditional higher education system. (They can be identified by their almost complete lack of knowledge of how technology is currently used in higher ed or the constraints placed on professionals that work on-the-ground in digital higher ed.) Then there are those that believe that the promise of educational technology is little more than hype, pushed by vendors and edtech evangelists. They contend that the actual improvement in value offered by technology is overblown and ultimately limited. (This camp loves to make reference to the low retention rates in MOOCs.)

A Third View

In a recent essay entitled “Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation in Higher Education”, Andrew Kelly and Frederick Hess offer a useful third perspective. They argue that educational technology indeed has the potential to revolutionize higher education, however, “cheerful claims that American higher education is undergoing an irresistible change driven by digital technology are unduly optimistic.” Use of technology has not significantly altered the value of higher education. This is because our use of technology, to date, amounts to little more than "retrofitting“ - the ”grafting on“ of new technologies to a traditional higher ed system that is fundamentally largely incapable of leveraging the revolutionary potential of technology. Traditional higher education + technology does not = a revolution. Consequently, the current reform efforts in higher education constitute simply a ”doubling down“ on the traditional model - an attempt to stretch the capacity of the system to do more - rather than ”real innovation."

Real innovation, in contrast, requires fundamental changes to the institution - new business models, essentially. However, it is notoriously difficult for established and successful institutions to recreate themselves and employ new business models (and there are few more established or successful institutions than Western higher education). It’s for this reason that innovation tends to come from new organizations, not from incumbents.

The solution according to Hess and Kelly is to ensure that new organizations can participate in our higher education system. We need to redesign the higher education system to allow these new organizations to influence, inform and, yes, disrupt the traditional model.

Hess and Kelly’s work draws heavily on Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. This brilliant, but regularly misused theory, describes how “disruptive innovations” typically emerge from new, rather than established organizations, by leveraging technologies in better ways through new business models. At first these new solutions are ignored and often restricted to niche markets (e.g. online education in the 1990s). In time, though, the value of the new approach increases, and ultimately challenges more established providers who - given their commitment to widely accepted notions of excellence and best practices, can muster only “sustaining innovations.”

This recurring process of new solutions replacing older ones is happening at an ever increasing clip (c.f. Blue Ocean Strategy for more on this). But change in higher education is unfolding far slower. Hess and Kelly believe policy is the means by which we can stimulate faster change. They propose four changes:

  1. Focus on outcomes rather than the act of delivery.

  2. Openness to new providers.

  3. Unbundling (Enable institutions to draw on a range of service providers in order to facilitate better quality, lower costs.)

  4. Portability (Allow students to learn from a variety of providers and to have this learning validated. e.g. badges as certificates.)

The Role of Policy as a Driver of Innovation

Some will likely see Hess and Kelly’s argument solely as support for a more market-style higher education system. That wouldn’t be wrong. And the fact that the essay comes by way of a conservative think-tank won't make its' reception in higher ed more welcoming. But I think if we focus exclusively on the market-friendly nature of this work, we may miss the more important contribution - the call for greater attention to policy as a tool for driving positive change in higher education. In a similar vein, I’ve written previously about the importance of business models. Like policy, business models provide the overarching framework in which we work; they structure the possibilities. While a good deal of discussion in digital higher education focusses on instructional practices and technology, to a considerable extent, these are determined  by broader, structural conditions - such as policy. Put another way, the right policy (or business model) makes it possible for great educators to use the best instructional strategies and technologies to help students learn.

Disruptive AND Sustaining Innovation

Although the focus on policy is useful, I think the essay - like many before it - may over-simplify innovation. The authors position disruptive innovation as the end-game, our single objective; other less revolutionary types of innovations (sustaining, incremental) seem to be of little consequence. Although I am as impatient as the next educator to see dramatic improvements in higher education (I think my colleagues will vouch for me on this matter), I think it’s important that we don’t let our desire for big wins cloud our judgement. The distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovations is almost always less clear than theory suggests. Sustaining and disruptive innovations don’t operate in separate realms, untouched by each other. They interact constantly and feed off of each other. Forensic analyses of any disruptive innovation will show that sustaining innovations made it possible. Yes, disruptive innovations are exciting and satisfy our desire for quick changes, but they are one part of a large set of innovations required to improve the value of higher education for our students, faculty and other stakeholders.