Some unseen sides of “disruptive innovation of the higher education”

 

In a recent article (with a surprisingly extensive coverage in the media), Jeff Selingo starts continues a discussion about recent trends in higher education with the promising sentence: “The “disruption” of the higher-ed market is a popular refrain these days.” The expectation for a serious analysis of the recent mantra in higher education is fueled when he continues in the same note: “What exactly those innovations will look like remains a matter of debate.” Unfortunately, the “matter of debate” is closed when we read realize that we have to read again an article to praise the digital revolution and some old promises:  “a potential future of higher ed that’s more collaborative, social, virtual, and peer-to-peer—and where introductory courses are commodities offered free or close to free.“ This article is very interesting for being not only amazingly present on influential publications (eg. Chronicle of Higher Education or The Huffington Post), but for its capacity to coagulate some concerning slogans able just to reveal some blurred sides of this promise of “disruptive innovation”. There is no point to stop here to scrutinize the semantics of “disruptive innovation” as a label attached to new technologies in education. The fact is that new technologies in education are presented as the solution for an educational revolution for at least two decades and no “disruptions” are yet recorded (if we understand disruption as something able to drastically alter or destroy the structure of [something]). It is more important to have a look at some important, but shadowed parts touched by this “popular refrain”.

It is important to note that the idea to reject or ignore the importance of new technologies in education is not only naïve, but unrealistic. Facebook and Twitter, e-books and e-textbooks, apps and computer/online games, LMS options and online education already have a tremendous impact on the way we learn and have the potential to expand as never before the way we learn and teach. This blog post starts with the hope that expressing some concerns about what looks to be the miraculous solution is not interpreted as a conservative rejection of Internet as a magical source of knowledge and open access or the educational potential of some new technologies. It is just a call for a more in-depth analysis of some implications before we relax thinking that the solution was finally found for most important problems confronting now our universities. It is also a challenge to look if the promise to revolutionize education with these tools presented as solutions is not just another utopian project linked with some perilous effects.

There are too many aspects of learning overlooked by the increasing chorus chanting what Selingo calls to be the “popular refrain”. In Finland – with its impressive results in education nowadays – some schools reported that sometimes students’ interest concentrated on computer instead of the assimilation of content. I admit to the guilt to believe that we have to assimilate a bit more that pop songs in our memory if we want to have creative and flexible minds able to adapt and productively work in the knowledge economy. However, being confused by software and losing interest on content in favor of a gadget may be a minor thing to fix, but brings the interesting example of “disruptive educational reform and innovation” in this country. In 1970s, Finland had an underperforming education system, a somehow primitive agrarian economy based on chopping trees and selling them as brute wood – obviously, not a long-term solution for a country with very limited resources. The change came with an impressive reform in preparation and selection of future teachers. Education for all, every teacher immersed in intensive preparation (all have at least a masters degree now) and strict selection. The other important ingredient: an impressive social esteem for the teaching profession and it all turned to be keys in the Finnish innovation’s success. There is an important lesson here for a genuine revolution in education: the success came not by increasing the control and punishments, standardization and numbers of tests, not with a massive investment on software, tablets and computers, but by a genuine focus on quality, selection and social esteem for this difficult job. The focus on lowering costs and increasing immediate profits was overcome by a long-term vision for results – this proves to be now a wise decision. In Finland only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom – competition is very high because in this country you can be proud for having this respectable and beautiful profession. Results show that students see this and serious benefits came with this form of “disruptive innovation”.

It may be argued that we live different times and things are different now for our universities, but there are no reasons to claim that the current focus on cutting costs and looking at knowledge and teaching staff just as “commodities” is sustainable for the knowledge economy. There is a different type of change happening now in universities: focus on commoditization, driving down cost and increasing profits (and number of for-profit universities), the syndrome dubbed as “cash cow disease” ravaging universities and what was so well and worryingly documented in “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – that we are losing student learning at an alarming pace. This book is providing extensive research data to sustain the argument that the attributes we consider to be the pillars of higher learning – such as critical thinking, writing skills, complex reasoning and acquisition of academic knowledge – are not being achieved at institutions of higher education. There seems to be an astonishing lack of vision and concern for the future, a twisted and simplistic understanding of the term “sustainability” with implications for the future of our culture, civic values and democracy. This part of “disruptive innovation” is not following the popular refrain and it seems as being completely left out of the song.

There is also the recent report on e-schools in Ohio (Ohio’S E-Schools: Funding Failure; Coddling Contributors). The report reveals appalling results of these innovative e-schools able to attract an increasing number of students: “e-schools have grown significantly in enrollment since their inception in the 2000-2001 school year when the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) enrolled nearly 2,200 students. Since then, enrollment in E-schools has grown about twice as fast as enrollment in brick and mortar charter schools”. However, we find here some concerning results associated with this indubitable popularity:

“23 E-schools rated by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2009-2010 school year, only three rated “effective” or better on the state report card. In other words, only 8 percent of all E-School enrolled children are in schools that rate B or better. By contrast, more than 75 percent of traditional public school students attend school in buildings rated B or better. In short, children are nearly 10 times more likely to receive an “effective” education in traditional public school than they are in Eschools.”

I imagine how some may read this with the reaction of that biologist looking for the first time in his life at a giraffe shaking his head in disbelief while repeating “This animal doesn’t exist!”. Sometimes it seems that common sense of some simple facts such as that popularity is not equal with efficiency and substance or that knowledge is not equal with web-surfing was lost in the genuine euphoria of seeing “disruptive innovation” at work. The re is a possibility to see online learning is passing the state of lab experiments and isolated showcases of prestigious universities and is applied more generally as a panacea for old problems approached with the same old paradigm… it may lead to the same old appalling results. This is one concern: massification of online solutions can just replicate and intensify current problems if we do not rethink our current educational paradigms.

The other foggy side of disruptive innovation in higher education is about the promise: it is even more unclear how technology will change other than opening access (we agree here for the sake of saving readers’ time to ignore the complex facets of digital divide and increasing debts of students choosing online courses/universities), increasing profits (this is already happening) and making “introductory courses [as] commodities offered free or close to free”. Where is the increasing accent on cultivating innovation and creativity for students, attributes and qualities that are vital for individuals and societies in the knowledge economy? To claim that the simple use of new and innovative products is making students innovative and creative is like claiming that a pair of Air Jordan Shoes makes you a unique athlete. So where is this part? It may be good to consider also data of recent research showing how we learn differently in online environments with a very interesting impact on memory (see here “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”). The equation of our cortex reaction to new technologies is far from being solved and it may be important to have a broader look at all these changes before we jump with joy and dull enthusiasm seeing videos posted online while most are just replicating the same old process in a bit more contemporary (and fashionable) form.

There is a genuine change in education starting from new technologies, but it may be not enough. We cannot afford the naïveté to think that our economic, social, ecological and cultural crises can be solved by the simple introduction of learning management systems and access to Internet. This may be just another dangerous bubble – the problem is that recent bubbles come with increasingly dangerous and serious costs for real lives. We have to hope that we will read soon articles embraced by all these powerful media outlets with less enthusiasm and more substance in looking at those obscured faces of “disruptive innovation of higher ed.”

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