Innovation and Higher Education

Over the past week, I read the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. I’d read several other books about what he calls disruptive innovation theory, but not yet this book, so I decided that it was time. I am one of those faculty members (I did this when I was a student affairs professional too) that enjoys reading a book from another field and considering what it means for the field of higher education. The book is worth reading, although the amount of discussion about the disk drive industry and innovations with in it made me feel quite old. For example, I can remember when disk drives served floppy disks that looked like this:
8-inch-floppy

And now disk drives serve disks that look like this:
SanDisk_Cruzer_Micro

One of the points, I’ve been spending some time with is that the cause of “every successful company’s ultimate demise” is,

“the two principles of good management taught in business schools: that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers, and that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” (p. xxxiv).

Although I am not a fan of likening higher education to a business in the manner that it is often done today (it seems such a narrow way of viewing a complex organization), I’m not one to fully throw out the entire idea. So, I’ve found it worthwhile to consider how these two principles of management are enacted in higher education…at least in relation to the experiences I’ve had.

The first principle, “that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers” I’ve most certainly heard within higher education. From time to time I also hear it from the students I teach.

“We must meet the students needs!”

The issue, for me, becomes do the students know what they need? For that matter, does anyone really know what they need? I know that I often think that I know what I need in the moment, but when looking back I more often see a much smaller list of necessary items than I originally put together. So, it seems that perhaps what we might be responding to are people’s wants disguised as needs. I also know that, from my experience, I can always need/want more. In fact, I’m not sure that I know too many people, myself included, that are quick to say, “no, no, that’s enough…I only needed that amount” of whatever it is that they are being given (hence my struggles with dieting).

Another issue I have with the principle, but again, one that I see being enacted in higher education has to do with responding “to the needs of your best customers”. I can certainly see how this can cause issues for any organization facing a disruptive innovation. After all, those that are not identified as your best customers, but that are still your customers, are not fully being considered. Thus, while they still might consume your product, they are being taken for granted. It doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to realize that when they find a place that will value their contributions more that they will go there. In a day and age when most institutions are facing retention issues this seems like a more high-risk way to keep students. In a day and age when higher education is being questioned about its purpose, this seems like a sure fire way to produce people who are dissatisfied and frustrated with their experience—especially if all that they have to do is glance around to see that the needs of others are being met.

The second principle, “that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” seems like a formula for stagnancy. After all, how do you know what the return rate of an innovation is if it hasn’t been put out to market? Furthermore, even if it has, and it is not showing a high return, perhaps that is simply because the right market has not been found (which means that it eventually will lead to a high return rate). So, while I can understand how it seems safe to focus on innovations one can anticipate will provide a high return, I can also understand why Christensen warns that,

“Experts’ forecasts will always be wrong” (p. 178).

Furthermore, what does this mean in terms of failure? Is it not okay for institutions of higher education to experience failure, which thus allows learning to occur? Is society okay with institutions of higher education failing? Imagine if such failures were approached primarily as learning opportunities instead of primarily as unacceptable. If it isn’t, I only see such practice teaching others that they must be perfect in all that they do, which seems incongruent with valuing the life-long learning, which is professed to be a purpose of higher education.

Perhaps enacting these principles, as I’ve experienced higher education do, means that a disruptive innovation is on the horizon for higher education.

Considering Social Class in my Classroom Learning Environment

This morning I finished reading Social Class on Campus: Theories and Manifestations by Will Barrett. I purchased the book for several reasons.

9781579225728_p0_v1_s260x420

One, social class is an area I want to personally continue learning more about as I find myself noticing it more. I’m also considering incorporating a focus on it in the Internship 2 course that I teach, which currently contains a focus on chaos theory and disruptive innovation theory. I’ve been considering social class a disruptive “innovation” to higher education in my mind for the past few years, but am still wrapping my head around it so have not yet incorporated it into that course.

social-class-and-ecology

Second, the book contains personal narratives in the last chapter, and I’m always looking for such narratives to add to the courses I teach. I am of the belief that learning occurs best when it connects to lived experiences, and providing the lived experiences of others can sometimes help to build those connections. Perhaps not at all surprising is the challenge in actually finding such personal accounts in print. One of the points that the books contains is that valuing narratives of lived experiences is not often something valued by those in a higher social class–hence, a potential reason as to why I am always on the hunt. A final reason I selected the book was due to the structure in which it was written. Each chapter contains suggestions for activities, as well as discussion questions at the end. I value both of these as an educator for myself and others.

I gained a lot to “sit with” from the book, and would recommend it to others working within higher education. Social class isn’t necessarily one of those areas that gets a lot of attention directly, yet as I reflect on all of my experiences and conversations on college campuses (starting with the college search in high school) it is an ever present guiding force. This I’ve known, but continuing to learn more about it allows me to “see” it even more. As an undergraduate student, I recall being told by an administrator that it was refreshing to work with a student wearing flip flops and a ponytail, and similar, yet different, messages continue to be sent to me as a faculty member.

At one point in the book, Barrett discusses how students who are the co-creators of knowledge are more likely to reach self-authorship. Self-authorship in a very reduced definition is a way of making meaning in which an individual determines their own values and beliefs while seeing others’ views as important, separate, and worth considering (Important to note: Separate does not mean disconnected). This internal value and belief system enables individuals to consider experiences from multiple perspectives and make responsible, ethical decisions for the common good. Arguably, this is the goal of higher education.

Barrett draws the connection between types of pedagogy found in courses hosted at various institutions (discussion based, lecture style, etc.) and class. For example, a student who was able to attend a high school where discussion was valued in the classroom might seek out a college experience where the classroom experience is discussion based. He then draws the connection to those students being more likely to be self-authored. This was one point in the book where I found myself thinking two thoughts:

One, simply because something is discussion based does not mean that students are developing toward self-authorship. Baxter Magolda provides several examples of various ways, including lecture style learning environments, that promote self-authorship, and the key, according to her, is the incorporation of all principles and assumptions within in the learning partnerships model (a model designed specifically to promote the development of self-authorship). My own experience in higher education demonstrates that discussion based learning environments to do not inherently promote self-authorship, as it was not until my graduate education that I was asked to “situate learning in my own experience”, as well as experience being “validated as a knower”–the two principles missing from Barrett’s discussion about what is necessary to develop toward self-authorship. I engaged in discussion based classes at my own undergraduate institution, yet, I was rewarded for being able to argue/defend/repeat claims made by others about the field of study–not consider those claims in terms of my own lived experiences, which would have validated that I brought knowledge with me to the classroom.

The second thought I had was not to dismiss quickly the point Barrett was making. This got me thinking about the classroom experience I seek to provide, and the messages that are being sent about class. It is extra complicated when considering that,

“We all have a social class of origin, a current felt social class, and an attributed social class” (p. 7).

I’m still working on exactly where I land with the classroom environment I try to create (I just finished the book this morning!). I do know of at least three ways that I can be more inclusive, so that even if students are being taught cultural capital in a variety of ways throughout all of their experiences (this is a whole other blog post, and is really just one type of capital..it sure is complex stuff), they aren’t being asked to completely reject whatever cultural capital they do bring. So, here are my list of three:

1. Provide on my syllabus information about purchasing any books electronically. Often publishers allow for purchasing of hard copy and electronic copy with the electronic copy being less expensive. I’ve also already done this one, but want to keep doing it…work with the library to make sure that the assigned books for class can be checked out of the library.

2. Discuss class attire on the first day of class. Learning does not require business clothes. I look forward to seeing how this conversation goes this fall.

3. Continue to have library orientation and technology orientation involved in the Intro. class I teach. Continue also assisting students in learning APA style through a continual learning process, rather than provide a workshop and expect that they “get it” after the workshop.