The best strategy for managing disruptive innovation in higher ed

A tale of two disruptive innovation implementation case studies provides best practices for interested institutions.

disruptive-innovation-studyIf a traditional college or university wants success for its implementation of a disruptive innovation, make sure that it’s not subject to the same guidelines and strategies currently in place.

In other words, disruptive innovation success means implementation via an autonomous subunit.

This finding is part of an analysis of two university case studies that tried to successfully integrate the disruptive innovation known as “work-focused learning,” which (in the UK especially), is a learning model offered to undergraduate students who want to earn an undergrad degree in three years but are unable to stop working full or part-time and cannot obtain that degree through conventional routes.

At one university, the model of work-focused learning was initially an autonomous subunit of the institution’s traditional mission and management. At the other university, work-focused learning was integrated as part of the institution’s traditional teaching mission and model.

“When planning for curriculum and business model change in universities, it is useful to be able to provide an analysis of proposed curriculum developments to distinguish those that are incremental and sustaining in nature from those which are disruptive innovations,” explain the study’s authors—Stephen Powell, a researcher for CELT at Manchester Metropolitan University; Bill Olivier, professor of Educational Technology at IEC, University of Bolton, IEC; and Li Yuan, senior researcher at University of Bolton.

After an institution identifies which innovation are truly disruptive, it’s critical, continue the authors, that research is conducted to determine “to what extent do they have the structures and processes in place to successfully respond to, or possible initiate, disruptive innovations,” since these innovations often “place new demands on staff, budgets and organizational models. These include changes to established ways of teaching, professional development activities, research, scholarly practice, IT systems, decision-making and administrative processes. Any of these may provoke conflict with particular interest groups.”

(Next page: The 2 case studies; key takeaways)

Before the study delves into describing the two case studies, the authors make sure to explain the theory of disruptive innovation (and how it differs from sustaining innovation), as well as provide a thorough description of work-focused learning. For more information, read the full report here.

A Tale of Two Case Studies

Name: The Ultraversity Project

Began: 2003

Aim for work-focused learning model: To fully implement as part of a new degree program; to develop university staff teaching and working practices toward the new model; to diffuse successful practices across the host institution’s teaching strategies.

Implementation strategy: Set up as a semi-autonomous unit that developed an undergrad degree program with its own marketing, recruitment and enrollment processes, significantly reduced fee structure, and a dedicated staff wholly focused on supporting students online. Included a multidisciplinary team of 24, including tutors, software and technical support staff, and administrators. The staff worked on: assessment portfolio software and customizable, proprietary learning environments; online recruitment and admissions processes; online pedagogical innovations such as ‘hotseat’ experts; an alignment of module requirements, work activities and assessment; development of the role of academic as learning facilitator; and organization of the teaching teams working practices to support the work-focused learning.

Results: At first, the model had success, as measured by student graduation rates; however, graduation rates declined over time, as well as recruitment. Ultraversity attributes this pattern of decline to an institutional reorganization when, from 2006, “Ultraversity was drawn into the main body of its institution where it had to move toward the norm in terms of fees, rules and regulations, and the organization of the teaching team…marketing of the course was [also] absorbed into the existing university marketing, which was targeted at its traditional students recruitment and no longer the unserved customers” suited for the approach, says the study.

Name: The IDIBL (Interdisciplinary Inquiry Based Learning) Project

Began: 2007

Aim for work-focused learning model: To be an institution-wide reform initiative based on taking the work-focused learning approach and creating courses centered on it, to be delivered by faculty of the institution.

Implementation strategy: “The project first developed and validated the IDIBL framework against university quality regulations,” explains the report. “The framework consisted of a generic set of course documentation including a description of the pedagogical approach and a complete set of module descriptions…based on the Ultraversity modules. From this, specific courses could be rapidly developed and validated to meet changing employment demands.” Using this framework, the team then spent four years working collaboratively with self-selected faculty to develop and run pilot courses of their own.

Results: According to the study, IDIBL had little impact in terms of number of faculty choosing to use the model, as well as number of students recruited to the pilot courses (20-30s, rather than 100s). The framework, says IDIBL, was never embraced by the majority of staff as an internal model, the “reaction ranging from interest but uncertainty as to how to engage, to outright hostility,” say the study’s authors. Currently, while the framework’s individual modules have been revalidated, the actual pilot courses derived from it have not (due to the demand for full fees and no marketing budget).

(Next page: 3 reasons why autonomy equals success)

“Observation of those cases where market-leading organizations have successfully responded to a disruptive threat have shown the effectiveness of setting up autonomous units,” say the study’s authors. “This prevents the host organization’s current business model, culture, processes, systems and decision-making from blocking the actions and resources needed to successfully handle a disruptive innovation.”

For example, the study’s authors say there are three key reasons why handling disruptive innovations autonomously from traditional institutional policies is effective:

  1. The pricing of non-autonomous courses (like IDIBL’s) fails to take account of the reduced cost of wholly online delivery, unlike the Ultraversity experience, and thus diminishes the offer.
  2. The traditional productivity model (i.e. contact hours and timetabled sessions) does not fit with online, asynchronous facilitative teaching approaches.
  3. Teaching staff’s conservatism regarding pedagogical beliefs and values. “The beliefs that exams are the most reliable form of assessment and that quality for undergraduate courses is best assured through delivery of good subject content, are challenged by the work-focused model’s requirement for learning facilitators assuring quality through a rigorous process,” states the study.

“…disruptive innovations, when proposed internally, will almost always be rejected by an incumbent organization,” concludes the study. Instead, institutions should set up “an independent organization, or an autonomous subunit, which can then develop without the cultural rejection and resource battles it would otherwise face.”

For more information on the case studies, results, and policy implications regarding higher education’s implementation of disruptive innovations, read “Handling disruptive innovations in HE: Lessons from two contrasting case studies.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Oops! We could not locate your form.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.