Monday, July 14, 2014

Disruption or Incorporation?

The interwebs lost their minds a couple of weeks ago over Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker about disruptive innovation.  Lepore argued that Clayton Christensen’s formulation of “disruptive innovation” typically only worked in retrospect, and even then, it required selective reading.  Frequently, incumbents who are initially threatened by potentially disruptive innovations wind up incorporating them into their own operations.  This is Bill Gates’ famous memo about shifting focus from PC operating systems to the internet, which got Microsoft to focus more Internet Explorer than on Windows.  More recently, it’s Facebook buying Instagram.

My sense of the lesson to be learned is that incumbents who can adapt are likelier to survive and thrive than incumbents who simply refuse to acknowledge anything new.  

In that light, I read yesterday’s Chronicle piece about competency-based education a bit against the grain.  

The usual narrative about competency-based education -- and I’ve fallen into the trap myself from time to time -- goes like this.  Replace classroom instruction that involves a single professor and a uniform clock with individualized/atomized/automated online instruction and a series of tasks, and you will unleash the mighty potential of many who have been held back by an industrial-era production model.  (Alternately, the “anti” view would argue that it’s mostly an excuse to further deprofessionalize faculty in the name of cutting costs.)  

Framing competency as completely new and different raises the stakes.  Running a competency-based program requires completely rethinking how work is allocated and measured, how success is defined, and how financial aid is handled.  (Anyone who brushes off that last point as a technicality has never worked in academic administration.)  

I’m wondering if disruption is the most helpful narrative here.  What if the right narrative is inclusion?  Instead of either manning the barricades or blowing everything up and declaring year zero, what if we incorporated competency-based education into what we’re doing?

Here’s a version of what that might look like, though I’m certainly open to other versions.

What if a campus had its faculty run series of workshops/presentations/seminars on the topics in which students would eventually have to demonstrate competencies, but decoupled the workshops from the demonstrations?  Put differently, what if we separated grading from teaching?

The idea would be that students could attend as many, or as few, of the workshops as they thought they needed.  (Obviously, some level of intensive upfront advising would be necessary to make this work.)  When they feel ready, they demonstrate their mastery of the competencies through whatever projects or exams are appropriate.  Presumably, some of those workshops could be online, some could be onsite, and some could combine the two.

A campus would become a de facto learning lab, in which faculty offer scheduled -- but probably short -- workshops or classes for those who thought they might be useful.  Students could take the ones they see as relevant, even repeating as necessary.  “Satisfactory Academic Progress” for financial aid purposes could be established by setting a minimum number or percentage of competencies that have to be achieved every, say, six months.

In this model, faculty aren’t reduced to graders; they still teach.  Students seek out the most necessary and/or interesting subjects and instructors.  Online resources -- whether MOOCs or anything else -- would be made available on a guided basis as supplements.  Students who already have most of what they need in a given area could place out quickly; students who need extra help could come back again and again.  

In a sense, this model would shift the faculty role from “dispenser of rare information” to “sherpa through mountains of information.”  As such, it would come closer to acknowledging the reality of a world in which people have Google on their phones.  Institutions would still need to provide certain kinds of high-touch support, such as advising, and I imagine that co-curriculars could continue much as they already are.  But allowing/compelling students to decide for themselves how much instruction they need would both liberate the high achievers and allow students with unique learning needs to move at a pace they could actually handle.

The useful metaphor here may be the “blended” or “hybrid” course.  Courses that include both onsite and online elements tend to lead to better learning and completion outcomes than courses in either format alone, because it’s possible to get the best of both.  Could it be possible to take the best of both competency-based and traditional instruction?