October 22, 2016

Innovate or die: a message for higher education institutions

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It’s funny how reports on the same issue arrive from completely different directions. These four all deal with the issue of innovation and higher education.

Baker, S. (2010) Hefce gives out extra places and takes back £20m from teaching funds Times Higher Education, June 25

Calhoun, T. (2010) Re-imagining Higher Education, Post-Recession SCUP Links Blog, June 27

Kamenetz, A. (2010) Online education an the laying on of hands Huffington Post, June 29

OECD (2010) The OECD Innovation Strategy: Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow Paris: OECD

Let’s start with a focus on the financial conditions that universities and colleges will be facing in North America and Europe over the next five years. One clear outcome from the recent G20 meeting in Toronto (apart from torched police cars and broken windows) is that governments are moving away from stimulus funding to deficit and debt reduction. This will vary from country to country. In Britain, many government departments are looking at a 25% reduction in funding. The Times Higher Education article highlights the first steps in Britain: a £20 million ($30 million) reduction in funding for university places. This comes on top of earlier cuts of £900 million ($1.35 billion) in December, 2009.However, it should be noted that $10 million was ‘protected’ for another 10,000 places, and the bulk of this money went to the Open University and the rest to ‘newer, teaching focused universities’.

The Calhoun article is an interview with Donald Norris and Linda Baer, who state that:

‘data from SHEEO (State Higher Education Executive Officers, who manage state funding to universities in the USA) demonstrate that the deficits facing states will be deeper than previous recessions, will last longer, and that there will be no bouncing back to normal like after the recessions of the past 30 years. The new normal will be diminished state appropriates, on average about 20% down over the next three years. This will require institutions not just to muddle through, but to reimagine themselves for the new normal.’ If higher education hasn’t established genuine financial sustainability through reinvention by 2020, we will have missed our chance to shape our future. Others will do it for us.

This is a multi-year campaign, not a single quick fix in response to mid-year budget cuts. It begins with establishing the need for establishing a sustainable vision for 2020 – financially, programmatically, organizational, and politically.  We expect that institutions will need to use the 2010-2013 period to launch processes of reimagination and reinvention, then progressively redirect their energies so that by 2020 they have leveraged innovations, achieved greater levels of academic and administrative productivity, fresh revenues, and an appreciation for the value propositions required in the new normal.  This is a tall order, but we cannot escape the implications of the times.

Then we have the response from the institutions. Anna Kamenetz, the author of KDIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education has an interesting blog in the Huffington Post, where she describes the negative reaction she got to her book from a panel at a conference in San Diego. Her response was:

If people who care about both quality and equality in higher education don’t get deeply involved in the use of technology to stretch the resources we have in order to educate everyone to the best of our ability and their abilities, then the future will be shaped by people with worse motives and visions.

In other words, she is arguing that public institutions will have to improve their productivity if they are to maintain quality with less rather than more money. This requires innovation in teaching and learning, the main message from our book about the strategic management of technology.

What is needed to support innovation? The OECD report argues that

‘in economically advanced countries future growth must increasingly come from innovation-induced productivity growth. Innovation encompasses a wide range of activities in addition to R&D, such as organisational changes, training, testing, marketing and design. Innovation is defined as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, work-place organisation or external relations.’ [Does this not sound like e-learning?]

Although the OECD report is more focused on businesses, these statements apply equally well to universities and colleges. There are two aspects:

  • preparing their students in such a way that students can foster innovation in the workplace when they leave
  • ensuring that the necessary internal changes take place within institutions to support innovation in teaching. research and administration

Among the OECD policy principles for innovation are:

1. Empowering people to innovate

• Education and training systems should equip people with the foundations to learn and develop the broad range of skills needed for innovation in all of its forms, and with the flexibility to upgrade skills and adapt to changing market conditions. [In other words, faculty need to be trained in new skills, and new approaches to teaching.]

To transform ideas and inventions into innovation requires a range of activities, including organizational changes, organizational-level training, testing, marketing and design.

I believe that these policy principles apply equally well to our post-secondary educational institutions. Look also at what the OECD says about how to develop a culture of innovation and ask yourself if this would apply to your own institution:

People generate the ideas and knowledge that power innovation, and they apply this knowledge and the resulting technologies, products and services in the workplace and as consumers. Innovation requires a wide variety of skills, as well as the capacity to learn, adapt or retrain, particularly following the introduction of radically new products and processes. Empowering people to innovate relies not only on broad and relevant education, but also on the development of wide-ranging skills that complement formal education.

Does this apply to faculty?

Lastly, the OECD report also focuses on how curricula need to change to encourage the development of skills that lead to innovation in the workplace:

Formal education is the basis for forming human capital, and policy makers should ensure that education systems help learners to adapt to the changing nature of innovation from the start. This requires curricula and pedagogies that equip students with the capacity to learn and apply new skills throughout their lives. Emphasis needs to be placed on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, user orientation and team- work, in addition to domain-specific and linguistic skills. The acquisition of skills is a lifelong process; it does not end with formal education. Schools lay a base for lifelong learning, but ongoing skills acquisition needs to be encouraged. This involves recognising all forms of learning and making them visible, including through qualification systems. Rewarding lifelong learning and making it attractive may help enhance participation.

Universities, colleges and vocational training centres are essential nodes in the innovation system, both producing and attracting the human capital needed
for innovation. These institutions act as essential bridges between players –businesses, governments and countries – in broader and more open systems of innovation. They also contribute to the local quality of life and thus can help to attract the highly skilled from around the globe. World-class institutions can be the anchor for clusters of innovative activity. The major policy challenge is to recognise the essential role of universities in the innovation enterprise rather than view them, as is all too commonly the case, simply as providers of essential public goods. This requires a greater focus of policy makers on ensuring independence, competition, excellence, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility in universities.

In short, universities and colleges are critical to developing graduates that can support innovation in the work-place. Perhaps even more importantly, though, the institutions themselves will have to find ways to innovate to provide quality services with less money. The appropriate use of technology, as with innovation in other domains, will be an essential component of that process.

So some questions, dear readers:

1. Do our (public) institutions really need to change, or is this just the usual North American hype and hyperbole?

2. If they do need to change, are they up to it? Do they have the will, skills, knowledge and attitude to make the changes necessary?

3. Is e-learning an essential component of any needed changes, or could the institutions manage the necessary changes without a heavy reliance on e-learning?

4. What is needed to bring about any necessary changes in our institutions?

Over to you.


  1. Hmmm… I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing enough about the *purpose* of education in the thinking represented by the references mentioned.

    Your statement from OECD about universities and colleges “preparing their students in such a way that students can foster innovation in the workplace when they leave” (and in my opinion this should include k-12 as well) begins to hint at this. But I’d like to hear more about critical thinking, citizenship, quality of life, etc… things that go beyond the workplace.

    To me this idea opens up the topic of informal learning. The innovation required might be described as finally coming to grips with the fact that content AND personal support is ‘out there’ and not necessarily ‘in the academic institution’ and therefore the academic institutional focus needs to shift. Maybe the educational goal should be to work with learners to help them acquire ways of finding, evaluating and making effective use of information and also help them to learn how to form social media connections that will assist learning and focus it to specific areas of interest. Then the institutions could have a role in evaluating how the learning is taking place so learners can gain credentials and move forward in life.

    Innovate or die doesn’t seem to be too extreme of a concept to me. I can visualize a day in the not-too-distant future when what is known about a person’s contributions via social media will be more important than any degree. Employers are already looking there as well as at resumes, aren’t they?

  2. There is a great deal of truth in the original post and I certainly agree with the thrust of the comments by Elizabeth. The requirement for institutions to change and to “do more with less” is not a new one and we can track this back for at least 15 years, probably more. A key difference in the current situation is that of ‘intensity’. The cuts are more extreme than in the past and will have a greater impact but current institutions will not, and probably will not be allowed to simply shut down. New opportunities will arise for commercial innovators in the education space – as has also happened in the past.

    Will the current range of institutions suddenly die? Probably not in the short to medium term. Our social structures are well geared to the requirements of education to sustain economies and increase quality of life. As the post and some of the content cited works suggest, however, they may very well become extinct as new entities begin to emerge and continue to adapt, showing themselves to be more fit to survive. This will not apply to all institutions for the foreseeable future due to the differentiated status of the elite institutions, but it will be harder for them, most likely.

    Many faculty members in our current system are well equipped to undertake research but not so many are well equipped facilitate learning, neither do they get rewarded for it. This argues for a differentiation of these activities, an option that has not escaped the governments of many developed countries (and some post-developed economies in decline).

    While I certainly agree that technology mediated learning has a strong and essential role going forward, we have to recognize that our current implementations of educational technology are not producing much of the change that is required. If they were, we would probably see better evidence of traditional universities with large LMS implementations leading the way to recovery. That does not seem to be happening. The way forward is probably a distinctly different approach to content and technology across education and training institutions that is driven by a fundamental change in the business model of institutions. The business model change must precede the technology changes.

    Assuming the change in business model, which will be by far the hardest step for current institutions to make –just like textbook publishers not being able to change– there are other technology themes that are likely to dominate the new entities in the education space. These would include: a shift away from current LMS dominated models for learning; the ability to access common content across an increasing range of tools; greater engagement in Open Education and Open Education Resource opportunities; and a broader mix of technologies being made available for learners (incl. social, collaborative, gaming, simulation, augmented reality, etc) within more flexible infrastructure, to name a few…

    These will only make sense if institutions can reinvent themselves in their business models and roles before the “Darwinian window” slams shut.


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  2. […] stakeholders, such as government, parents and students, in university reform. In the meantime, see Innovate or Die, an earlier post that discusses the need for institutions to innovate and […]

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