Monday, May 27, 2013

More Neologisms! Hybrid Innovation and Other Things that Make Me Want to Vomit

In a recent white paper, Clay Christensen and his accomplices--the eponymous Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (seriously, not an Onion headline)--made up yet another fake word: hybrid innovation.  They claim that this concept is “a fundamentally new concept [in] the world of disruptive innovation.” Um, ok.  I guess if you take the excellent, pedagogically sound practices of hybrid education and smash it together with your byword for siphoning off resources from public education to the private sector, you can claim to have invented something new.  Or not.  In fact, what we see is a pretty blatant attack on one of the most promising educational movements in both K-12 and post-secondary education right now, a movement that is returning better learning outcomes in a range of different kinds of classes and with a diverse set of students and is just beginning to spread more widely.  But, of course, the blended/hybrid learning movement threatens the narrative of decline that Christensen and other disruptors have worked so hard to instill in the broader public and so it must be appropriated for the public sector, re-defined as an inferior product, and then re-marketed to schools and universities.  This isn't just harmless nattering by a B-School professor who seems to have little sense of how classroom-based education with real, living, breathing students works.  This is dangerous stuff, and it must be aggressively countered before blended learning and the flipped classroom become as tainted by neoliberal millennialism as MOOCs currently are.

What Christensen and his group characterize as hybrid innovation is a pretty basic concept: take a quality product (f2f, classroom-based, instructor-led instruction); bastardize it by combining it with an inferior product (most especially online lectures but also other kinds of online content created by private industry and marketed back to schools); and sell it to those who can't afford the high quality product.  As someone who has spent more than a decade teaching at a public institution and deeply committed to the notion of education as a public good, I am disgusted and horrified by this paper.  I grew up in a world where education was a great equalizer.  I finished my PhD with no student loans and a first-class education (a BA at Brigham Young University in Classics, an MA at Penn State in Comparative Literature, and then an MA/PhD at Penn in Classical Studies).  I studied with people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.  I was proud to take a job at UT Austin and continue to contribute to the tradition of first-class scholars teaching and researching at public institutions.  I will continue to resist narratives that encourage a greater stratification between public and private institutions, and that threaten to worsen the economic disparities in this country.

More to the point, though, I am troubled at the way the Christensen paper appropriates a mode of course design that is precisely the opposite of what they are describing.  Far from being an inferior product, a hybrid (or blended or flipped) class is a superior product.  Indeed, given all their angst about the failure of lecture courses to inculcate real learning gains, I'd think they would be embracing a model that seems to address that very issue and is showing real promise, particularly in "gateway" courses in math and the natural sciences.  Of course, this superior product comes with a price tag: flipped classes are much more challenging to teach and require substantially more "on the ground" help with grading, in class group work, etc.  Still, I'd argue, if institutions are genuinely committed to improving the quality of teaching and learning on their campuses, their best bet is to focus on transforming especially freshman/sophomore level courses using the various techniques of blended learning (as UT Austin has done, inter alia, via its Course Transformation Program).

Let's be clear: the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation has as its goal the redirection of public dollars away from students, teachers, and institutions and towards private education technology companies.  It imagines that these companies will provide that online content that allows schools to reduce their "dependence" on experienced and credentialed teachers (and, in order to push this narrative, it is necessary to argue that these teachers deserve whatever happens to them because they are lazy, incompetent failures).  At first--this is the disruptive part--that online content will be cheap; it will be inferior to what a teacher can do (no surprises here).  It will be marketed to students with "less demanding performance requirements" (really, that's what it says).   But--and this is where the projections and future modeling start--eventually, the quality of this privately produced product will improve enough to rival the original, high quality product.  Note, though, that this is all speculative.  No evidence that this is going to happen.  In the meantime, those with "less demanding performance requirements" (i.e. those who can't afford to attend elite private schools) will be subjected to this two-headed monster.

Education isn't a commodity; it's a practice.  A quality education is not something that happens without a lot of effort on the part of the student and her teachers. It can't be packaged, it can't be outsourced (at least not without severe consequences to its quality).  Christensen's group is correct when they imagine that online content delivery will play an essential role in the future of education at all levels.  I firmly believe this.  But I also firmly believe that instructors need to actively defend their right to create and shape that online content for their students.  Supporters of innovative disruption are depending on the fact that, especially at public institutions like my own, faculty will be too passive, too obsessed with their research, to fight for their right to define all aspects of their course (including, if they chose, to use privately-produced content).  This is a temptation that needs to be resisted.

After a year of experimentation with blended learning at UT, I am a convert.  It has completely changed for the better my large enrollment Intro to Rome class.  I encourage others to experiment with blending and flipping their own classes.  At the same time, it is a lot of effort and mental energy to create online content in a way that connects tightly to our course and learning objectives.  It will be tempting to use someone else's content.  That's the scenario that the supporters of disruption are counting on, as they try to appropriate and redefine blended learning for their own objectives.

All of this reminds me of an experience I had many years ago, while living in Munich as a post-doc.  I needed hangers and pillows, so I went to the downtown department store.  I was stunned to learn that, in Germany, household goods were both of extremely high quality and very expensive by comparison to the US.  There was no Walmart or Target version available.  At Christmastime, I packed my suitcase with household goods that I knew I'd be leaving behind.  But I also brought back with me all of the expensive goods I purchased and I still have them now.  I have no problem with economic theories being applied to actual markets, like that for hangers.  I agree that a cheap but still functional hanger is going to be a disruptive innovation.  But education is not a commodity; students are not customers; and institutions are not, finally, businesses.  Sure, there are resemblances, especially these days, but the comparison falls apart under scrutiny (show me a business where the owners grade the customers, for starters).  Yet education is not a hanger (nor should we be looking to Ikea for ideas about the future of higher education). A low-quality education is a bad education, and it can in fact be worse than no education.

5/29/2013: In the words of Jonathan Rhees, "People who want to disrupt higher education don’t care one whit about the quality of higher education. They want to disrupt higher education because that’s where the money is. While they will inevitably fail at making higher education better, recent history suggests that this inevitable failure will not prevent a few people from getting very rich at the expense of faculty and students worldwide."
5/30//2013: and, in the spirit of laughing rather than crying, Tressie McMillan Cottom's Disruption Playlist

Less funny:  "On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the online courses could increase access and keep costs down. 'I am very, very, very interested in MOOCs,' he said. 'We need some disruptive innovation in higher education.'"  Or, maybe, we need more public dollars directed towards education...Oh wait, that's just crazy talk.
5/31/2013: Michael Horn (one of co-authors of Christensen Institute white paper on hybrid innovation and employee of institute) writes that data supports theory of disruptive innovation in education.

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