Love of All Wisdom

Of disruptive innovation

by on Feb.16, 2014, under Economics, Politics, Work

If one follows current conversations about technological changes in higher education — which it is a major part of my job to do — one quickly encounters a great deal of praise given to “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”. Massive online open courses and various other online innovations, we’re told, will overthrow the tired old models of education and usher in a marvelous new world far better for students than the sclerotic old habits of the deadwood professorial class.

So far, none of these technological trends has yet made big changes in the way higher education is done. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been only two trends in higher education that were genuinely disruptive innovations in a literal sense – that is, innovations that have genuinely disrupted the lives of the people who make up higher education. The first of these is adjunctification; the second is tuition increase. Those making the most important decisions about higher education in North America have seen fit to do two things above all: they have compensated faculty much less, and they have charged students much more. In other words, for the past forty years, disruptive innovations have been entirely for the worse.

The term “disruptive innovation” is currently used in a more specific way, one that does not refer to all innovations that disrupt lives and ways of doing things, but rather to specific kinds of economic products. The term in this sense is the product of a management professor named Clayton Christensen. (It is characteristic of management professors, in my experience, that for better and for worse they tend to think more like managers than like professors.) For Christensen, a disruptive innovation

transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.

This version of disruptive innovation sounds much nicer than the literal version I have discussed so far. Adjunctification doesn’t count as a disruptive innovation in this technical sense since it’s not formed in a niche market; tuition increase is a form of the high cost that disruptive innovation is supposed to disrupt. In the long run, however, I submit that in higher education, the effects of disruptive innovation in Christensen’s sense may prove even worse than these.

Let us first ask: On what grounds is it decided that “simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability” are the most important values in deciding what and how new generations will learn? The question is in a sense rhetorical, for grounds – reasons – are irrelevant in capitalist economics, where consumer preferences are typically treated as an unfathomable “black box”. Consumers do typically choose based on these factors, but their reasons for doing so are not the issue. When organizations depend on consumers’ money, what ultimately destroys them is not reasons why consumers stop spending that money, but the bare fact that consumers stop spending that money.

Yet to anyone who believes that a humanities education is worth anything, it should seem suspect that simplicity, convenience and accessibility should necessarily trump depth, accuracy, insight, truth. Few of the latter values appear in Christensen’s world, as far as I can see it. But it may well be his set of values – the former values – that will carry the day. And that will be a catastrophe. These are the same kind of values rewarded in the market economy outside the universities, and disruptive innovation allows them to take precedence over the universities as well. But such market values are tremendously corrupting to the mission of the university, especially to the humanities, whose worth has never been primarily economic. But the question extends beyond the humanities, too: if the next generation of scientists chooses its education based on simplicity, convenience and accessibility, what sort of science may we expect from it?

I have left affordability out of the last paragraph, because in this era it has indeed come to be genuinely important. In an era where punishing debt loads push American undergraduates into a lifetime of indentured servitude, cost must enter into all our calculations. But as noted above, punishing tuition costs are themselves an innovation, a relatively recent one. In 1972, even in constant dollars, an American college or university education, whether public or private, cost a third of what it does now.

Why did this happen? Not because faculty cost more – in the days of adjunct faculty they now cost much less. It is a complex process, but the most straightforward culprit is simple: government budget cuts. In an era of Reaganite capitalist economics, the government ax landed repeatedly on institutions of higher education. Both tuition increases and adjunctification came first out of public universities’ need – to do more with less in terms of number of students, and to do less with less in terms of quality of education. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this has even been the cause of the startling increase in the cost of private education: knowing that their lower-cost public universities were now charging more, they could raise their higher prices still further.

But if one is aware of this history, then it would seem that what higher education most needs is not disruptive innovation but the exact opposite – a reversal, a return to the past. Namely, a willingness for governments to pony up and pay the bulk of the costs of educating their citizenry.

Christensen’s site adds “It’s important to remember that disruption is a positive force.” To which I reply: the opposite. Rather, it is exactly the disruptions I have seen in my lifetime that make me increasingly happy to call myself a conservative, despite (or to some extent even because of) my left-wing economics. To praise the changes of revolution and shrug at the irrelevance of those left in its wake – this is the viewpoint of Lenin and Mao, but for goals significantly less lofty than theirs. It seems to me that most humanities faculty share my view – they are conservative in practice, if not in name, and that justifiably so.

I am of course all for innovations that allow educators to give students a traditional education more effectively. That is what I do for a living and I believe in it. But the term disruption, in either sense, seems to me more likely to categorize those innovations that do the opposite. As long as higher education is under threat of disruption by the imperatives of money-making, then for whatever good it will do, I am prepared, with William F. Buckley, to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”

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5 Comments for this entry

  • JimWilton

    Amod, you miss the purpose of higher education — the reason why students attend college. It is not to learn specific job skills nor to learn to think or to seek truth. It is to be “selected” to attend and, in graduating, to be admitted to the social and business elite.

    This is why public college tuition has very little relation to tuition at elite private colleges. Private college tuition is notoriously variable. This serves a selectivity purpose. The wealthy and upwardly mobile upper middle class have no sensitivity to tuition costs. In fact, higher tuition is a draw rarther rthan a draw back — precisely because it is a proxy for selectivity. And acholarships allow the elite private universities similarly to select from the most promising of the lower economic classes.

    If you wonder why mass on-line courses at private universities have been dismal failures, it is because these programs mistake education as the primary purpose of the university. The real purpose — selectivity and admission to an elite — is antithetical to education for the masses.

    • Amod Lele

      Jim, thank you for this comment. It is good to be reminded that I am not the most cynical person out there when it comes to higher education!

      I actually don’t think that MOOCs have been a failure at all when considered from the perspective you describe. The purpose of an élite private university hosting a MOOC – especially an edX MOOC – is to bolster its image and prestige, or in the preferred terms these days, its “brand”. It establishes one’s star professors as even bigger stars than they were, increasing the value of the real thing.

      More broadly, you are quite right that this élite status is a reason students attend private and/or selective colleges, but I don’t think it is or ever was the reason. If it were the sole reason and sole purpose, then the wild-eyed radicals would be entirely right to say we should abolish these institutions of privilege and call it a day. But then and now, students there still do and did want to learn big ideas (whether the value of great books or queer criticism of cinema).

      And that is only to speak of the top-tier schools. The vast majority of higher education, even in the US, takes place at places that are run by the government and not very selective. And at such places job skills reign supreme. Your degree from Slippery Rock University is not going to impress many people; the fact that you actually learned how to program a computer at Slippery Rock University is a much bigger deal.

  • JimWilton

    I am glad you are not a cynic!

    The interesting thing is that, while motivations are important, the process of obtaining an undergraduate education is more important. Choosing a college is like other big decisions in life (career, marriage) — when making a choice, the outcome is uncertain because the person who makes the choice is affected and changed by the process and at the end of the day is not the same person who made the choice.

    As long as there are good, intelligent, compassionate (and non-cynical) professors — there is a possibility of positive transformation and a chance of inspiring students — whatever there motivations for applying to the college.

    I guess that means I am not so much of a cynic either.

  • Steven Schmidt

    Students are not consumers because part of education is learning what you need to know, what it is important to know, and why. I took mostly Math & Computer Science courses and it’s as true there as in the Humanities.
    Since education institutions should respect the students and address what the want to know, what they believe will be relevant to their lives, there’s something paradoxical about a good education.

    • Amod Lele

      Excellent point, and one I need to think on more. I am doing a computer science degree myself, and I can see exactly what you’re talking about. It’s easier and clearer to say these consumerist and “disruptive” models of education shouldn’t apply to fields like the humanities which are not about getting a job. But a similar critique is likely worth making even in fields that are about getting a job.

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