Vision Council symposium centers on disruptive innovation

January 25, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A Stanford researcher sees 10 universities surviving in the world 50 years from now.

An expert in disruptive innovation sees a “fundamental breaking of the business model” in higher education. In urging change as technology capabilities in education evolve, another expert warns that “stasis doesn’t look like stability, it’s a slow decline.”

Participants shared some sobering insight and statistics Jan. 19 at a special symposium titled “Planning for a New Higher Education Ecosystem,” but also discussed how Penn State can be nimble in changing times and be one of those 10 surviving institutions, if the prediction is correct from Sebastian Thrun, Stanford professor and founder of free online educator Udacity. The Blue and White Vision Council organized the event at The Nittany Lion Inn. The recently formed, 24-member panel aims to identify key strategic challenges and opportunities facing Penn State in the next five to 10 years. A previous story on the council's Jan. 19 seminar can be found at online.

Vision Council member and University Trustee Joel Myers set the tone in his introduction and keynote speech, titled “The Digital Revolution Transforming Higher Education,” by pointing out that some analysts see universities “approaching bubble territory.” Government funding for university research and student financial aid will come under increasing pressure, he said, with more than half of recent college graduates either unemployed or underemployed, some in Congress and elsewhere are questioning the value of a college education. Plus, Penn State will have fewer in-state students to draw from as Pennsylvania’s high school age population is projected to decline by 33 percent in the next 20 years; that figure increased by 8 percent over the previous 20 years.

“Alternatives to a traditional university education are increasing daily,” Myers said. “Creative destruction often starts with an inferior product that is good enough for the lower end of the market but keeps improving until it is as good or better than the incumbent and at lower cost.” 

Myers stressed we need to move from a teaching-centered model to a learning model, both online and in classrooms.

That process is disruptive innovation, said Michael Horn, executive director of San Francisco-based think tank the Innosight Institute, and it’s upending the current business model for universities.

He sees a “job mismatch paradox” where the educational system isn’t producing enough qualified people to fill the employment opportunities that remain in tough economic times. Tuition rates across the nation, he said, are nearing a point where more increases may trigger steep declines in enrollment. Meanwhile, online education startups are having no problem finding investors, according to Horn, who warned Penn State to not overlook these low-cost providers as competitors because their educational product will likely get better. He offered cautionary tales of how the leaders at companies such as U.S. Steel and General Motors resisted change and lost ground to newcomers in their industries.

With aptitude, background knowledge, long-term memory and other attributes varying among students, Horn said online education is better tailored for multiple learning styles. Online learning promotes a competency-based learning experience that offers real-time feedback and advancement only when a student masters the subject, according to Horn, and it is done at the student's pace.

“We all have different learning needs at different times,” he said.

Even some startups, he said, are finding ways to integrate parts of the residential experience offered by traditional brick-and-mortar educational institutions. He said universities must “frame online learning as a sustaining innovation,” and that Penn State is on the right track with the creation of its World Campus, which offers 90 programs and has enrollment nearing 12,000. Penn State's World Campus was launched in 1998 and has seen increasing growth.

Clay Shirky, an author and instructor at New York University on new technologies and social media, urged experimentation and collaboration as universities shape digital learning, warning that if a university isn’t evolving, it’s in a “slow decline.”

“If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” he said. “If failure gets hidden in an organization, you might as well not be experimenting.”

He said technology is growing at a rate that makes what were seen as impossible problems become trivial. Shirky warned institutions against seeing online learning for what it is at the moment, because it’s building to something else. Enrollment at Penn State's World Campus could surpass that of the main campus as early as 2014, he said. Also, the picture of a “fresh faced 18-year-old embarking on a quest of self discovery during four years on a bucolic campus” is not the reality of who’s seeking a higher education, according to Shirky.

Other changes he sees:
-- Credit hours – the accumulation of which leads to a diploma -- have been devalued, and aren’t always a reflection that the student has mastered their field of study.
-- Professors are self-publishing their own textbooks, using online platforms to deliver considerable savings to students.
-- Mathematicians are solving problems through massive online collaborations. Other scientists and professionals are following this path, as well.
-- Students taking online courses are facilitating their own after-class discussions among classmates online and in-person.

Digital breakthroughs are allowing students to take a more active role in shaping their education, he said, and universities can learn by observing those actions.

“For the first time,” Shirky said, “the story students are telling themselves about what they want is different from what we think we know.”

The Vision Council is expected to continue in the coming months its exploration of issues facing not only Penn State, but all of higher education.

Last Updated October 13, 2013