The Mu (μ) Factor: Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education

UV Letter - Volume 1, #2

Clay Christensen's attention to disruptive innovations has recently focused on higher education. He identified disruptive influences that are already perched on the doorstep of the academy. The conclusion of his analysis is consistent with his landmark study: industry participants will adapt to these changes or be lost in the fog of history.

It is beyond dispute that higher education is being assaulted on all fronts with demands for innovation; innovations that will reduce cost, increase access, and produce better learning outcomes. Likewise there is no question that opportunities to innovate are abundant. Indeed, it may be argued that there is the equivalent of a "pent-up demand" for innovation in the academy. Deeply held (if not revered) tradition has ruled the ivy clad environment and placed a higher value on constancy rather than creativity when it comes to the modes and methods of imparting knowledge and skills.

The very method by which quality is assured and the ability to succeed or sustain postsecondary operations is controlled is predicated on levels of "sameness" or "likeness" rather than difference. While in the research laboratories the pursuit of the "new" may be the goal, in the classroom the "old" is not readily laid aside.

This preference for and persistence of the tried and true is embroidered into the very fabric of the standards and regulations by which postsecondary institutions are assessed and authorized. Accreditation is predicated on peer review methodologies whereby an institution is judged worthy or not based upon the level to which it meets the expectations of conformity held by those who are engaged in administration of the very same tradition-infused processes and programs. Whether stated or veiled, the fundamental thesis is that your institution is deemed worthy of accreditation if it looks and operates like other accredited institutions.

Regulations force the same conformity. Whether emanating from state licensing bodies or the U.S. Department of Education, one only need review recent history to appreciate the conservative influence of these agencies. For years the Department of Education resisted providing funding for academic programs delivered through telecommunications. Most recently, the Department issued a regulation defining the "credit hour" that is so restrictive in its formulation that all of higher education has reacted against it. A fundamental precept of the state and federal regulatory schemes is that education is best delivered in a classroom, by a faculty member (preferably a full time faculty member with tenure), through lectures in a physical facility with a library filled with physical volumes of books and journals.

We call these systemic impedances to innovation the μ Factor. They restrict the flow of innovative developments and adaptations. Given the position of higher education as one of the most highly regulated industries, perhaps behind only health care (although health care has a higher tolerance for innovation, if not a warm embrace), the μ Factor in higher education is exceedingly high, if not the highest of any industry.

Accordingly, while the wags may call for innovation and change in higher education, and while the industry may be assaulted for its lack of innovation and cajoled and beseeched to innovate, the reality is that the μ is too high. Disruptive innovations are unlikely to impact higher education so long as μ is not reduced by accrediting bodies and government regulators.

This perspective may be sobering for those who would change the paradigm and have postsecondary education undergo significant reform. However, within the field of conformity is the seedbed of opportunity.

Those who will succeed in leading changes in higher education are those who know and respect the traditions and can rationalize their desired changes within the domain, values and lexicon of the academy. The following will tend to reduce the μ Factor:

  • Bottoming change on documented outcomes rather than consumer preferences, e.g., changing the delivery model based on the value of independent learning rather than student convenience.
  • Embracing national policy concerns rather than the availability of untapped market opportunities, e.g., adopting changes in delivering learning to meet the unique needs of key groups, rather than finding new market opportunities.
  • Blending and nuancing change with tradition rather than revolutionizing the model.
  • Justifying change with documented outcomes or, at least, a commitment to rigorous examination of the learning outcomes rather than experimentation that panders to consumer preferences.

Accelerated and online delivery models ran the gamut of evolutionary acceptance and adoption in postsecondary education because they employed these μ reducing strategies. The constructivist learning principles adapted to these delivery innovations have proven to be just as promised. The commitment of proponents to tracking and measuring outcomes has produced a library of studies and reports that confirm the projections. While some may not like the advent of these new learning processes, it is difficult to challenge their efficacy.

Disruptive innovations will be the drivers of growth and sustainability in higher education ventures in the future. However, success will only come to those who manage (and respect) the μ.

University Ventures Fund invests in universities and service companies in areas where rising demand and shrinking supply create rapidly growing market and student service opportunities.