15th February 2012: MITx and Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education

Ken Wark and I had a brief Twitter exchange yesterday about an Atlantic Monthly story on MITx and disruptive innovation in higher education.


“It’s a complete misunderstanding of the business(es) universities are in,” Wark told me. “B-school bullshit.”


I spent Valentine’s Day night thinking about Rakesh Khurana and Henry Mintzberg, whilst writing PhD notes on the speculative bubble in terrorism studies.


The changes Wark notes have unfolded in Australian universities since at least the mid-1990s. As an undergraduate I saw cuts made to La Trobe University’s cinema studies department. Several of the senior academics went to Monash or University of Melbourne. I then worked in publishing, saw several companies fail, and lived through the dotcom era. As a postgraduate student, I lived through the rise and fall of the Australian Foresight Institute at Swinburne University and the first years of Monash’s counter-terrorism studies degree. As a researcher, I worked for a cooperative research centre and on a successful rebid. As a research administrator, I’ve worked on university audits and several institutional reviews. I’ve worked closely with three professors who have thought deeply about these issues over the past 8 years. What business(es) universities are in can look very different depending on whether you are a student, academic, or university administrator.


B-school has several lessons on navigating this debate:


1. Emphasise research programs and teaching that create (and extract) institutional value. Wark for example has made significant contributions to new media theory, cultural studies and to the debate on intellectual property. His distinction between people who create intellectual property (hackers) versus people who own it (vectoralists) has some implications for who controls the copyright on academic journal articles. This emphasis on value is foreign to many academics. It’s a view closer to music producers like Rick Rubin and musicians like Jay-Z and Kanye West, and to private equity and venture capital firms. However, my experience is that it’s vital to gaining tenure track, dealing with promotions committees, and handling salary contract negotiations. Successful academics can articulate their individual value and why it should be hard to imitate. Wark and I agree that there’s a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic for many academics.


2. Content differs from credentials. Mid-way through my Swinburne Masters studies, the professor and his teaching staff faced a student revolt. It occurred in a subject that used cohort-based learning to generate a lot of the content and insights. Several students decided they would get more value from coffee discussions with their new colleagues than paying for a five-day subject in accelerated delivery mode. When I recently wanted to understand the debate about high-frequency trading systems and market microstructure in finance, I assembled a personal reference library and spoke to industry professionals for less than the cost of a university subject. Students with Amazon Kindle software and research skills can do the same. HR managers still value credentials for specific degrees and career pathways.  Universities use credentials (and their absence) in contract negotiations. Initiatives like MITx promise to fulfill or satisfice the desire for credentials and quality content but without the current levels of student debt. It’s a value migration gambit that is potentially disruptive to tenured professors and their expertise.


3. Cost structure matters. Wark and I agree that higher education faces a ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic. In Australia, I see this as a competition in part between the Group of 8 institutions, a group of ‘challenger’ specialists (including Griffith, RMIT and Swinburne), and universities burdened by a high cost structure and operational inefficiencies. This impacts a range of managerial decisions from the institutional budget process to patterns of academic hiring and the quality assurance of international program delivery. The B-school curricula of GE, Jim Collins, Clayton Christensen, Michael Jensen, Aswath Damodaran, Moneyball, Stephen Schwarzman, and others has lots of relevant insights on how cost structure can be a shaping influence on institutional management. Academics who understand cost structure — even if they personally disagree with it — will have a shared framework to communicate more effectively with others.