Questions & Answers

Why did you write “The Innovative University”?

Given our combined expertise in the study of business innovation and working within the university setting, we decided to write “The Innovative University” to share some ideas about what innovation could make possible in higher education. We wanted to show how new strategies, many of them driven by online technology, make it possible to serve more students at lower cost while also increasing quality and improving the learning experience – something we saw in practice within our own university homes.

Since then the world has moved into a major economic downturn. Slow economic growth, high government and household debt, rising college tuition, declining graduation rates, and growing competition from the rapidly growing for-profit higher education sector combined to create a renewed sense of urgency for our message. We could see how the same online learning technologies that can benefit traditional institutions can also disrupt them.

So our message became cautiously optimistic. Online learning, we believe, will either disrupt traditional universities and colleges or create opportunities for them to serve more students and lead the country to greater prosperity. It depends on whether they cling to a model that has changed little in the past 150 years or embrace learning innovations made possible by new technology.

How does the book grow out of Christensen’s theories of disruption and innovation?

Christensen’s theory of disruption shows how new innovations take root at the low end of the spectrum for consumers whose needs aren’t being met by existing markets. Disruption occurs because when you make a product or service affordable, simple and accessible, people use much more of it.

Sure enough, there is tremendous demand for online learning. There are many nonconsumers of higher education – people who cannot take part in the current offerings of traditional universities because of money or time constraints. Online learning is the disruptive technology that allows these nonconsumers entry into the higher education market because it makes it much less expensive and much more flexible.

What forces are threatening traditional universities, and why does preserving them matter?

Traditional universities are an indispensable cornerstone of society and culture. The college experience is transformative for so many people, and it’s an experience people cannot get elsewhere.

While we can’t afford to lose the traditional college experience, we also can’t afford to support it on its current trajectory. In their race to constantly make themselves bigger and better, colleges and universities have steadily driven up cost. They’ve lost focus on their once-modest missions and are now unsustainably overstretched and overcommitted. The economic downturn is exposing them, as seen by the increasing number of students who are jumping ship to alternative forms of higher education like community colleges, for-profit universities, technical institutes and online degree programs.

We assert that colleges and universities must break with tradition and find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, allowing them to once again become responsive to the needs of learners.

Why do you advocate for colleges and universities to embrace online education?

Online technology makes a college or university vastly more attractive to a wide subset of students. It gives many people a second chance at learning – i.e. those who cannot afford a traditional college education, those who do not have the flexibility to take part in a full plate of coursework, and late bloomers or dropouts who have fallen behind and now have the chance to catch up.

But online learning doesn’t just offer cheaper education for the masses. It improves the student learning experience across the spectrum by allowing remedial to elite students to learn at their own pace and on their own timetable. Students can receive a fully customized education adapted to their own individual learning style, something that even the world’s best one-on-one tutor would have trouble systematically emulating. Students also benefit from a full array of choices about where, when, what and how they learn. And they can access the best teachers and information faster, connect with more global networks, and all in all consume a much more attractive product. Lastly, online learning is a cost-saver to the university, greatly reducing the expense of building and managing a brick-and-mortar facility.

Combine the lower cost of delivery with the lower cost of attendance, and it’s clear that online learning is a major cost advantage. Therefore, we urge traditional colleges and universities to adopt these technologies.

How else can higher education become economically viable?

Universities must make strategic choices about which traditions are sustainable and which are not. These choices run the gamut from embracing online and distance learning, as we’ve discussed, to key operational and mission-related decisions.

For example, very few businesses can succeed when they run seven or eight months out of the year, and university leaders will have to think carefully about the academic calendar. They should consider whether it is realistic to be universal in the subject matter they offer or if they should specialize in select core subjects like sci-tech/engineering or liberal arts. Another question is whether to recruit all students, or those they can serve uniquely well, such as traditional college-age undergraduates. Finally, universities must think about the balance of teaching and research and what that means for their tenure and compensation policies.

In sum, colleges and universities cannot survive by doing everything they’ve always done. They must focus on what they do best to educate the students they wish to serve.

What do the histories of Harvard and BYU-Idaho show us about the future of higher education?

The stories of the development, evolution and continuing innovation of Harvard and BYU-Idaho show that universities can prosper if they are thoughtful about their strategy. Harvard has chosen to serve its students and communities with the highest quality education and because of its significant financial resources its model is sustainable. Although BYU-Idaho has more limited resources, it clearly identified who it wanted to serve and where it excelled, ultimately providing higher quality education at lower cost. The overarching message for university leaders is to innovate and change your university “DNA” to satisfy the educational needs of your student base and remain a healthy, thriving institution.

Why is now the right time to take a hard look at our education system and ensure we plan for a competitive future?

The new economic and social environment presents some big sticks, but even bigger carrots. Health care obligations have squeezed the ability of states to fund higher education. Only deficit spending – which can’t continue at the current rate – has allowed the federal government to sustain its student financial aid and research funding. Simultaneously, risk-free investment rates of return have fallen, creating a funding problem for even well-endowed private schools. On top of that, for-profit educators have the capacity, if they choose, to lower their prices to attract traditional college students in greater numbers. Disruption of the old model of higher education is imminent.

Fortunately, the need for higher education has never been greater. The bursting of the housing bubble is just one indicator of the vulnerability of the middle class. Cheap credit isn’t enough to raise or even maintain their standard of living in this global competitive environment. We need to provide much broader access to excellent higher education. The institutions that find ways to serve more students at high quality and affordable cost can control their destiny rather than be disrupted. In the process they may be able to work the kinds of miracles they did in the post-Civil War and World War II eras.

  • Nangula Iipumbu

    How can these changes (as suggessted in “the Innovative University”) be strategically introduced in higher education institutions… ensuring minimal resistance?