Disruption, higher education and other vague discussions

Brian Lamb’s recent post has me reflecting on much of my discomfort with the disrupting higher education rhetoric, which, if anything, only seems to be gaining ampler.  I’m not sure if he intended this, but in the last paragraph he grounds the mile high disruption conversation in what really matters–innovation that addresses problems of meaningful access to education for students with varying access needs.

My discomfort with much of the disruption rhetoric isn’t that higher education doesn’t need a shakeup, but rather it makes sweeping assumptions of “students”, “institutions”, “courses”, “faculty”.  Increasing, disruption is tied to MOOCs, and somewhere in the MOOC-disrupting-higher-education-leading-to-a-learner’s-bill-of-rights mania, “higher education” has never been questioned as a vacuous term that is misleading us into thinking we are all the same.  Even Stephen Downes, whose lefty views of education I wholeheartedly share, is guilty of this:

MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.

I have no idea what an elite college or university looks like in Canada, but it has already been recognized that the disruption narrative is North American and university centric, yet we are persuaded that the potential reach of MOOC disruption is global (and therefore inclusive).   But when we say we are disrupting higher education, what exactly do mean? What is the higher education that we are disrupting? What is the higher education that needs disrupting?

Higher education comes in many flavours like gelato and ice cream and frozen yogurt and it would be nice if we could acknowledge  that gelato and ice cream and frozen yogurt are all tasty but different.

When I moved from a research-centric university to a polytechnic I got my first exposure to this difference.  At this particular polytechnic industry wasn’t a dirty word, it was an important stakeholder.  Admittedly, this took a while to get used to, but I came to realize that this was important and beneficial in delivering education that mattered to a certain demographic of students, for whom university wasn’t an appropriate option. At this institution I was exposed to different kinds of applied programs that were structured, not around lectures, but apprenticeships.  I worked closely with the department developing the institution’s first Applied Masters degree, where grad students focused on real industry problems that needed to be solved.  “Faculty” at this institution kept one foot in industry and the other foot firmly rooted in teaching.  Compared to the universities I was familiar with, this approach was novel, and I wondered why it couldn’t be adapted to some university programs.

At my current institution, simulations, not lectures are the focus of the applied programs, and community replaces industry as the key stakeholder.  Faculty are seconded from the community organization or are contracted.  Students are largely mid career changers and adult learners.  Many of our students are located in small, remote communities, which means 30% of what we do has to be delivered online.  As a result, we even had to create a online simulation platform to allow us to deliver simulations at a distance, an innovation we think helps meet the needs of our students.  Yet influential voices would suggest that our motivation for online programming (and the assumption that this can somehow be  easily be MOOC’d) is as a sort of “cash cow”:

“There’s a whole bunch of universities that use online education as a cash cow,” said Mr. Thrun. “One of the questions that has arisen is that, if you can actually save money online, can you pass along those savings to the student?”

No doubt every institution could benefit from some change (disruption) or innovation (disruption), but it’s an unconvincing argument to suggest that they all need disrupting in similar ways and that MOOCs are going to be an agent of welcome mass disruption, since student motivations and needs for higher education are vastly different.  In other words, I’m not convinced that the current brand of disruption is paving the way for single parents desperate to get the training they need to get a better job in a way that the institutions dedicated to those students have already committed themselves. But I guess that’s not the job of the “elite” institutions.


  • cindyu

    “it’s an unconvincing argument to suggest that they all need disrupting in similar ways and that MOOCs are going to be an agent of welcome mass disruption, since student motivations and needs for higher education are vastly different.”

    Great point, Tannis, and it seems to me that the last paragraph in Brian’s post highlights the longstanding challenges around access and opportunity that have yet to be adequately attended to – despite the proliferation of online courses and resources – MOOCS or otherwise. However, I do think the disruption rhetoric has managed to light a fire under the overstuffed leather chairs of the old guard huddled in the boardrooms of the educational institutions (choose your flavor) and that’s a good thing. At my institution (and I never thought I’d see the day), people are talking about learning (not just credentials) and learning environments (not just classes). Faculty members are experimenting with open practices (http://artsone-digital.arts.ubc.ca/) and MOOCs are but a fraction of that experimentation. And learners are beginning to reap the benefits of (in some cases) well curated sets of resources that they don’t have to pay for. OK, they may not get a credential but I suspect many are developing the competencies they need to get hired or stay employed. I can certainly look to my own circle of friends (and my kids’ friends) who actively pursue this option because they are underemployed, underpaid, and simply can’t access the “system” of education that (in a civil society) should be available to its citizens without having to sell off an organ to afford it.

    So, I say let’s disrupt where it is needed but keep the aspirations of our learners and our communities (as diverse as they are) as our catalyst.

  • T Morgan

    Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment, Cindy. In reflecting on it, I have to acknowledge that there has been positive disruption in the non-MOOC form at my own institution as well. For example, at a recent event our students were thrilled to learn about the existence of open textbooks and prospective savings of $2000 over the course of a 2 year program. It’s unfortunate that MOOCs detract us from some of the examples that you mention as well as other forms of disruption (whatever that means), since they are likely to have more impact–MOOCs might be disrupting the continuing education world, but are they more of a disruption than an open university system that opened their doors to everyone and provided a clear pathway to a meaningful credential? Or institutions that provide (and have been for a long time) comparatively innovative learning and teaching environments? I guess I’m still holding out for a disruption that’s a little more radical than a MOOC. But yes, disrupt as needed is definitely the point.

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