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Innovations solving higher education challenges

March 09, 2017

In a world where disruptive innovation can change an entire industry, higher education has remained largely unaffected, according to a recent paper from The Christensen Institute. Innovations in higher education traditionally have centered on changes that allowed the industry to remain competitive and meet new challenges by pushing forward along established trajectories, such as building new buildings or adding new majors. But with technological changes moving deeper into the higher education field, traditional institutions are facing a greater challenge. As those institutions face rising tuition costs, declining state support and affordability issues due to weak wage growth, their business model is vulnerable to threats from larger disruptions. How they choose to respond may determine their future success. Five case studies presented in the paper showcase models that have succeeded in addressing such challenges through disruptive innovations, pushing their institutions into new dimensions.

In College Transformed: Five institutions leading the charge in innovation, author Alana Dunagan of The Christensen Institute – a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation – examines the theories of sustaining and disruptive innovation and its role in higher education today. Dunagan asserts that “business as usual simply can’t continue” in today’s higher education sector.

Disruptive innovations have a record of transforming entire industries and may bankrupt established corporations (think of the steel industry where large, integrated mills eventually lost out to the more adaptable minimills), Dunagan writes. While disruptive technology is often dismissed as being part of a different market or serving the low end of the market so as not to merit a response, it carries the potential to take over a larger segment of the market and eventually displace the established competitors.

While higher education had traditionally lacked a technological enabler with the potential for disruptive innovation, online education changed that. “The technological enabler is in place; higher education is ripe for disruption,” Dunagan writes. Examples of some disruptions taking place include bootcamps, competency-based programs and micro-credentials. Institutional leaders willing to employ new innovation strategies to compete may tackle challenges like affordability, equity and workforce preparation, she maintains.

College Transformed presents five case studies where disruptive innovations are working to solve specific challenges at institutions. Arizona State University has implemented a Global Freshman Academy designed to maximize access to the university by offering online courses to anyone with no upfront costs to enroll; payment is made after the course is completed and the student wishes to convert the course into ASU credit. While it meets many of the disruptive innovation criteria, what is not known yet is whether it provides a sustainable business model, the author writes.

In another case, Northeastern University’s commitment to innovation attracted Nick Ducoff from the startup world to serve as its vice president for new ventures. With what Dunagan calls a mandate to “future-proof” the university, Ducoff has built an experiential analytics bootcamp called Level that specializes in high-demand tech fields and partners with industry. Most of the students are adult learners who would be overserved by a traditional degree, Dunagan writes, but are looking to “skill up.” She asserts that its business model appears robust and it maintains the feel of a startup while operating under Northeastern’s brand and accreditation.

Other case studies presented in the paper include UW Flex at the University of Wisconsin, which was developed after the state’s manufacturing sector was adversely affected by the Great Recession. UW Flex is targeted to meeting the demand of jobs created in the 21st-century economy through a competency-based program that was built in partnership with the traditional UW System schools and support from key stakeholders, including the governor. Organized around learning as opposed to time, the program required different resources and processes, and established a different revenue model as well. The program charges a set price for a three-month subscription period, opting either for an all-you-can-learn or single competency set option. Motivated students can work their way through the system more quickly, potentially saving them money over a traditional degree program.  

Dunagan also profiles programs at Simmons College, where a successful partnership with 2U, a publicly traded online program manager, allowed growth in a nursing program far outside the brick and mortar university and led to additional partnerships building their online graduate programs. Lastly, Southern New Hampshire University’s growth from 2,500 students to over 63,000 made it one of the most significant players in online education and was initially started as a way to fight declining enrollment. After successful growth achieved through the school’s online program, President Paul LeBlanc focused on designing a program for working adults, resulting in the College for America (CfA) program. CfA is an accredited, nonprofit college that partners with employers nationwide to bring a competency-based college degree program to their employees at a reduced cost.

Dunagan’s case studies cover a range of institutions and challenges they faced and show how, through sustaining, disruptive or hybrid innovations, each of the institutions has thrived. Regardless of the strategy employed, she maintains that innovation is necessary to ensure success as technology, specifically through online education, “portends disruption in higher education.”

higher ed, innovation