A Case for Educational Innovation Without ‘Disruption’

Feb 05, 2020

We’re in a time of discovery when it comes to teaching. There’s a budding field called the science of teaching and learning, where scholars are figuring out what works when it comes to educating students.

But there’s a challenge in getting those findings to folks at the front of the classroom.

A new book, “Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education,” looks at how to create systems that apply the science of learning into actual teaching. It focuses on colleges, but it has something to say to educators at all grade levels.

The authors are Joshua Kim, Dartmouth College’s director of online programs and strategy, and Eddie Maloney, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.

We connected with the pair recently to talk about their vision of how higher ed can change in a way that they say works with, rather than against, educators.

The interview took place a couple weeks ago, and it’s worth noting that one person who these authors respectfully disagree with in the conversation is Clayton Christensen, a giant of business theory who came up with the famous framework of disruptive innovation. He passed away the other day, and you can read an essay looking back at his life and work that we published at EdSurge. From everything we’ve read about Christensen, we’re guessing he’d be happy to see his ideas debated and engaged with.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Although you describe yourselves as the “innovation” guys, you stress in your book that you’re not the “disruption guys.” In fact, one of your chapters is called Reclaiming Innovation from Disruption. What’s wrong with the disruption narrative when it comes to education?

Eddie Maloney: We think about the disruption narrative, the [Clayton] Christensen narrative and how that is being applied in higher education, and the weight and momentum it’s had. [His theory is that] industries will be challenged by newcomers who will come in with a cheaper, more efficient product—maybe a product that’s not quite as good, but will in some way challenge the status quo. And it eventually will lead to those established industries falling away and the new industries and companies taking over.


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That certainly has been a narrative of anxiety in higher education where existing institutions have been threatened by the technology industry, or by MOOCs, or by some other startup that will come in and potentially replace them. And you have everything from [Udacity co-founder] Sebastian Thrun’s proclamation that in 50 years we’ll only have 10 institutions of higher education left, and this anxiety that all of higher ed will somehow be fundamentally disrupted by these new technologies.

What we want to try to do in this book is claim that that is the wrong narrative and the wrong pressure on higher education. Higher education needs to change and evolve—and it always has. But to do so from this perspective of threat rather than opportunity is fundamentally problematic.

Josh Kim: We love higher education. We’ve built our careers here, and we see so much good in what we do, that it seems sort of nuts to want to throw it all away. And it seems like many of the people who are pushing a disruption narrative are people who are not working in higher education.

We’re also very suspicious of taking any kind of frameworks of change from the business world and applying them wholesale to higher education. We think that we need to understand our own culture, our own forces, and try to come up with some theories about how we will change and how we must change.

So you’re arguing that colleges actually don’t get enough credit in the press and with the public about how much things are actually changing?

Maloney: Part of it is recognizing that higher ed has had a history of change throughout its entire existence. It is always evolving to the current cultural, social and political environment that it happens to exist in, and what it needs to do to educate the citizenry.

There are a lot of colleges—liberal arts colleges and smaller colleges—that have always had that focus. But what we’re excited about is how higher ed is starting to see itself more as an ecosystem, as an integrated set of institutions that are tightly connected in a variety of ways that are now all focusing on this idea that teaching and learning is at the core of what higher ed needs to do.

Kim: So there’s been all this research about how people learn, and schools are literally changing the structures of how teaching is operationalized, how classrooms are put together, how courses are developed. We saw this happening across higher ed and we realized it’s a story that no one’s really talking about. And it’s not even really noticed within colleges and universities. So the book is really to mark this turn to learning, and then to understand why this happened, and will this continue into the future?

But hasn’t the energy faded from this topic a bit? The hype around MOOCs and other disruptive tech at colleges has faded.

Kim: It’s very much true that the MOOC hype has gone away, even though lots of schools now are looking at new methods of open online education, bringing degree programs to scale. There’s actually more going on than in 2012 when the bubble happened. But what really happened is that the whole MOOC excitement helped us build an infrastructure that we’ve been able to diffuse throughout our institutions. So nowadays it really is becoming standard practice for faculty to think about working with non-faculty educators, instructional designers, media educators and experts in assessment when they think about putting together their residential face-to-face courses.

Now certainly not all courses, places and institutions [are doing this]. But at many, many institutions, the large introductory gateway courses have been completely rethought in terms of how they’re developed, how they’re delivered, and we think that this is a great story. This is an amazing change, and the MOOC bubble helped accelerate it. And this shift, particularly in introductory courses that have gotten so much better over time, really needs to be discussed so it can be further diffused throughout higher education.

Maloney: I think you’re actually both right in this as well. Everything that Josh said is certainly what motivated us to write this book and about things that we’re fascinated by and interested in. But we’re also concerned that this is getting put back on the back burner. [We want to make sure we can keep up momentum.] We think it actually is the thing that will keep higher ed viable in the face of this disruption narrative or these forces of disruption. And if we’re not doing that [teaching innovation], we’re completely vulnerable to those kinds of pressures.

To play devil’s advocate, is what’s going on enough? You’re arguing you’ve built this infrastructure thanks to this momentum. But the change you’re making that you’re saying is happening—is it enough to meet the needs and the challenges of students and higher-ed institutions?

Maloney: If we do not continue to pay attention to the value and the import of really reflecting on and innovating in the teaching and learning space, then it won’t be enough. That’s the place where we think that higher education will be susceptible to that disruption narrative.

Is it enough? Well, it depends on the framework that you’re looking at. Higher ed in the United States teaches about 20 million students right now. That’s a large number of students to try to imagine another industry coming along and taking over without the kind of infrastructure that is in place.

But I don’t know that I have a great answer to the question “is it enough?” I think that’s an ongoing problem that we have to continue to work toward.

Kim: We’re up against demographic headwinds, rising costs—there’s all sorts of challenges. What we try to argue is that the way forward for colleges and universities is to not commoditize the teaching and learning … that you really have to put educators at the center of how you design the teaching and learning, which is the core of what our institutions are doing. And efforts to try to make that less expensive, either by relying on adjuncts or relying only on technology and trying to take faculty out, are bound to fail.

So part of the book is an argument that we really do need to invest in teaching and learning, and that part of that investment is to think about research and development and innovation. And we think that’s happening at many [colleges].

Your book focuses on higher education, but what about K-12 schools? If there are breakthroughs in learning science that are informing college teaching, shouldn’t those be passed to schools as well?

Maloney: We’re right at the beginning of this, and we have a lot to learn from K-12 education practices and investments in that space. We also have an opportunity not to get mired in that long history. I think we have some advantages and some disadvantages that we can certainly try to understand and work from.

Kim: When the three of us were in college the idea of learner-centric education happened at some places. There were some small liberal arts colleges that always did this, but it was certainly uneven across the higher ed ecosystem. And at a lot of schools it was content centric, and the idea of learner centric wasn’t really a thing.

What we’re saying now is that’s really starting to change. It’s not universal—it’s not everywhere. But there’s a critical mass now. Every institution that we visited was really trying to create learner-centric environments. [Still], how far are we behind the Montessori schools or nursery schools? We’re decades behind those folks. But I think that real fast change is happening. So hopefully by the time your kids get to [college], it won’t be so uneven.


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