For Real Academic Disruption, Try Empathy (CHE)

OCTOBER 23, 2016

A few years ago, discussions about the future of online learning reflected a mix of breathless enthusiasm and anxiety. Now, things seem to have settled down. While online enrollments are increasing, the numbers and associated revenue have been growing much more slowly than advocates had hoped for. Predictions about the end of college notwithstanding, the vast majority of online courses and degrees are still being delivered by traditional colleges rather than alternative providers. The percentage of chief academic officers who reported that online education was critical to their institutions’ long-term strategy actually declined last year, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

Or perhaps we were focused on the wrong Harvard Business School professor.

Over the past decade, educational innovators, reformers, and policy makers have gravitated to the theory of disruptive innovation described by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen argued that many companies that had made customer service a priority nevertheless went out of business after being overtaken by competitors that, despite offering inferior products, offered new technologies that found a niche in previously underserved markets. Over time, these newer technologies improved, and the established companies were not able to shift away from old products and business models aggressively enough to remain competitive.

A simplified interpretation of Christensen’s theory might be reassuring to educational innovators: Struggles with the quality of our offerings, especially online programs, and with broader adoption by tuition-paying students can be explained because we are essentially ahead of our time. We will start with underserved markets, we will improve, a broader audience will catch on, and traditional competitors will not be able to adapt and will ultimately lose. While Christensen himself would not endorse this caricature, the narrative, which casts disruptive innovators as new professional revolutionaries ushering in the end of college, is appealing.

However, another Harvard Business School professor, V. Kasturi Rangan, recommends a different approach. While his colleague’s theory was gaining popularity among higher-education innovators, Rangan was raising red flags in the 2006 book he wrote with Marie Bell, Transforming Your Go-to-Market Strategy: The Three Disciplines of Channel Management. He argued that companies tend to take their distribution channels — meaning the various ways goods and services are moved from suppliers to users — for granted. He used the example of American car manufacturers, which, he argued, failed to understand why the car-buying process was frustrating for car dealers as well as for customers. Rangan calls for an approach he calls “channel stewardship,” which ensures that a company’s distribution channels can both meet customers’ needs and drive profits for partners.

When applied to higher education’s recent experiences with educational innovation and online learning, Rangan’s diagnosis is painful to contemplate. Many online programs are still essentially new presentations of traditional models, relying on the same course requirements, live or recorded lectures, fairly arbitrary assessments, and even agrarian calendars.

We should be asking who our students are and why they might need a particular course.

True, newer offerings emphasize personalized learning, mobile-first delivery, and other technology-enabled features that are more flexible and better attuned to individual students’ behaviors. But many of these new features are essentially being pushed from the top down, starting with what the innovators think the learning objectives or educational delivery should be. And they reflect ingrained assumptions about the roles of faculty members, administrative units, academic calendars, and credentials, rather than the goal of putting students first and taking advantage of emerging research about human learning, memory, and motivation.

Rangan’s argument suggests that we should step back and ask whether we are paying the right sort of attention to our students. We might be making progress in meeting our goals for degree completion and learning objectives, but we should press the question of whether new approaches to educational delivery actually improve students’ learning experiences and meet their needs. Instead of starting out by asking how we might integrate various technologies to support the delivery of particular content, we should be asking who our students are and why they might need a particular course or competency at all.

Rangan recommends that companies focus on understanding customers’ experiences, frustrations, and goals, and commit to assessing and improving the ways products get to “end users,” or consumers.

Christensen, in his lesser-known 2003 book, The Innovator’s Solution,written with Michael E. Raynor, actually offers a complementary recommendation, which serves as a correction to the ways many companies and educational innovators have tried to claim the “disruptive” title. He argues for looking not only at customers’ behaviors but also at their social, emotional, and other circumstances and the needs they are trying to meet. In his view, customers have various “jobs” that need to be performed, leading them to “hire” goods or services. Companies that better understand their customers’ circumstances can better predict what they need.

What if, in the next wave of innovation in higher education, colleges embraced more empathetic approaches in the design and adoption of technologies and programs? Empathy for students would better align with Rangan’s views on channel stewardship, with Christensen’s jobs-to-be-done theory, and with the philosophy of design thinking, which focuses on finding productive solutions for the benefit of certain consumers or for society as a whole. In the context of educational innovation, all these approaches would emphasize the needs of students as end users.

A few academic programs provide a glimpse of this philosophy in action, including courses for working adults offered through Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, the tiers of academic support provided at Western Governors University, and an initiative underway at my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, which is aimed at preparing more high-school students from diverse backgrounds to attend competitive colleges.

As part of our OnRamps initiative, we’re working with public school districts and teachers across the state to deliver college-level courses to thousands of high-school students, to better prepare them for the academic rigors of college. Rather than starting with what “we” want students to learn, our faculty and staff members are using the principles of design thinking and channel stewardship to focus on the needs of students and school-district partners. The approach seems to be working: The enrollment and completion rates of high-school students in these courses are growing much more quickly than we projected, without sacrificing high academic expectations.

If we really want to be radical, as a community we would prioritize empathy and channel stewardship when developing our curricula — for example, by offering more personalized programs aimed at helping students develop skills that fit their individual needs, rather than standardized marches through predefined curricular maps. We would know our students — and our institutions — much more intimately.

Student-centered education redesigned from the ground up? Now that might be a real disruptive innovation.

Harrison Keller is deputy to the president for strategy and policy and a clinical professor of public-policy practice at the University of Texas at Austin.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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