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Mr. Disruption: Innovating Beyond K-12

Michael Horn wrote the book on innovation in K-12 classrooms. Now he's making predictions about higher education.

A decade ago, Michael Horn shook the K-12 world awake with his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He envisioned an education environment in which teachers’ embrace of technology would radically transform the classroom.

In subsequent years, Horn promoted that vision, first as founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation — a nonprofit think tank — and more recently as a consultant to a host of organizations in the education technology space, including the Entangled Group, a venture studio focused on the education ecosystem.

Horn has broadened his horizons: These days he is looking beyond K-12 to consider the disruptive impact of technology in higher education. He’s excited by what he sees, and optimistic that colleges and universities will soon take even bigger strides in the direction of digital learning.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Dr. Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education (CDE), spoke with Horn about the evolving digital landscape within higher education.

Are you seeing more higher education institutions interested in digital transformation?

Higher education is a more open and dynamic space than K-12. It is more of a ‘market,’ so you have institutions that need to innovate or face an existential crisis, which is quite different from K-12.

A lot of higher education institutions have created online programs in the last few decades. They are also launching competency-based learning programs and looking for other revenue sources. They are using those new programs as opportunities to innovate.

Where do you see the most room for growth?

The obvious choice is industries that struggle to find qualified employees who have the right skills after they graduate. There are huge opportunities in apprenticeships, particularly around digital skills. A lot of the shorter, faster boot camp programs represent areas where higher education institutions could have a big impact.

Where can higher education deliver value in the IT sector?

There is high demand around the digital augmentation of artificial intelligence and robotics, where you still need humans, but those humans need to sit alongside the technology and use it as an amplifier, not be replaced by it. That’s where there are huge opportunities for higher education to innovate.

You’ve mentioned law schools in particular as ripe for change.

The legal landscape has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, with disruptive innovations hollowing out the bottom end of the legal market. Legal Zoom can easily create a will or a basic contract. People don’t need to get a lawyer for these things. There is also technology that has made lawyers more productive, such that big law firms don’t need to hire as many entry-level attorneys.

As a result, the number of lawyers graduating every year and the number of available jobs is terribly out of whack. Students are figuring that out, and fewer of them are going to law schools and paying expensive tuitions.

How can law schools reinvent?

Law schools can create new growth areas, whether that is non-JD programs that focus at the intersection of intellectual property and legal questions, marketing and legal questions — things of that nature — or introduce low-cost, competency-based programs.

I think it is only a matter of time before a school launches a blended, competency-based legal program that dramatically lowers the cost of a legal education. They will focus it around how do you be a lawyer, and not just how do you think like a lawyer, which will be more effective. That will be a huge disruptive threat to those law schools that don’t start innovating now.

What example of digital transformation in higher education do you especially like?

I’m not sure there is any one model or tool. I have obviously been extraordinarily impressed with the work Western Governors University has done over the last 20 years. It serves 100,000 students online, many of whom are training for nursing and teaching careers, as well as information technology.

I’ve been impressed with how they use faculty and technology in novel combinations to give students unbelievable support and allow them to move through full degree programs faster and cheaper. Oftentimes, those students are also simultaneously earning other credentials and certificates that are not a formal higher education degree.

Where do you see higher education heading next?

I think the next wave of innovation will be around mobile learning solutions. I am excited by Smartly, a mobile app that offers a free MBA. Smartly makes money by placing students into jobs — the employer pays them, not the student. The profile of the students using Smartly is astounding — they are equivalent to the GMAT score and the GPA of an MIT Sloan MBA student — and it’s a free program available on a mobile phone.

But how’s the pedagogy?

The learning design is amazing. It’s incredibly engaging, and is a very active experience — students respond to a question every six or seven seconds. Full disclosure, I am on their advisory board. I was so blown away by it and I think it’s just a matter of time before higher education institutions start to use some of these mobile platforms.

Duolingo, which is an app for learning languages, is another good example.

With the rise of mobile learning, what happens to the residential character of higher education?

I am going to give you two split-personality answers.

On one hand, there are many universities and colleges that are deluding themselves if they don’t think many of their students will be learning in an online or blended format in the future. Thirty percent of masters’ degrees today are fully online. At least a third of students are taking one fully online course as part of their undergraduate experience. Just the growth of online students has been amazing. Even as there have been 12 straight semesters of declining higher education enrollment overall, online continues to creep up year over year.

But there’s a flip side to this?

By the same token, my next book is called Choosing College — that’s the working title — and we did our “jobs to be done” research, where we talked to several hundred students about their college-choosing experience.

The notion of “jobs to be done” is that people don’t hire products or services for their own sake, nor do they conform to the average demographic of how they are supposed to act. They just find themselves in circumstances or situations, trying to make progress, and if you can understand what progress they are trying to make and what the circumstance really is and the constraints, then you can understand what the experiences are that they need to have to really get something done in their lives and make that progress.

And when it comes to choosing a college…?

As we dug into this, literally creating documentaries of how they chose college, what we found is that one of the jobs that people “hire” college to do is to help them have their ideal college experience. It folds back on itself. It is so ingrained in American society that for a certain percentage of us the American dream is synonymous with having that grassy green quad and prestigious campus. So, given the depth of passion and significance of that “job,” my takeaway is that many students are going to continue to have a residential college experience and that colleges, several hundred or more, will continue to do just fine as largely residential campuses.

So there’s a gap: Students want technology, convenience and remote access, but they also want the traditional college experience. Is there also an institutional disconnect?

Professors’ incentives are often around research and breaking new ground. Sometimes that aligns very well with a certain subset of students and what they are interested in, but for a lot of students that is not what they are trying to get out of the experience, and there is a misalignment between those two groups.

What challenges does higher education face in addressing these gaps, especially in terms of digital readiness?

Creating short programs that are aligned to industry credentials and needs is complicated and difficult to accomplish with a faculty that may be removed from those industries.

Horn at work in his home off ice. His forthcoming book looks at students’ college-choosing experience.

There was a Dartmouth professor who left teaching for a year to work as an intern at Google and then returned to Dartmouth, which was enormously helpful for him. He realized that the theoretical constructs of the computer science major were incredibly helpful, but that a lot of the problems around big data and the specific applications of the course were out of date. Sitting inside of Google and looking at the actual problems they grapple with helped him revise his course.

Having those connections to industry is incredibly important. A lot of the practices at Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University have business panels informing the majors and the programs. I think that is an important step.

On the faculty side it can be more challenging. It depends on the university. There are some places that incentivize great teaching and the alignment of teaching to what students will need when they leave. Those places are set up for teachers to stay on top of the craft of teaching. But a lot of institutions focus on the research and not the use of technology in teaching.

What do you recommend?

One important step could be for institutions to step back and think through: What are the incentives and what is our purpose? Is tenure mostly about research or are there better ways to think about helping ensure student success after graduation?

That doesn’t just mean a job. It could mean civic participation or something else. Be clear about the desired outcomes and decide how to best train and develop faculty members to work toward those.

What are you most excited about in 2018?

I am actually pretty optimistic about the personalization that is increasingly occurring in K-12 education. For example, Summit Learning has a free platform that any school can use for any subject in middle and high school with lots of content and deep projects.

I was skeptical that any district could take that off the shelf, but I went to four or five schools in the New England area last year, across the country from California where Summit is located. In 75 or 80 percent of those schools I was blown away with how teachers were implementing it, talking about what they were doing and the way the students were talking about it.

What was your takeaway?

It gave me a real sense of optimism. For all the problems in policy and incentives, teachers and students together can still do some really cool things. They get the value of personalization — that is, to give students the right information at the right time, to keep them engaged and motivated, to make learning more efficient and more meaningful. Students get this and they understand the role of technology. There are other examples for sure in districts throughout the country.

Ten years ago, few people could have envisioned the rise of digital education as we’ve seen it. Looking ahead five years, what lies over the horizon?

It will be more honing of blending learning to move toward personalization and competency-based learning. I am not excited about blended learning for its own sake, but because it unlocks the ability to personalize at scale. It unlocks the possibility of mastery-based learning at scale.

As teachers start to blend or flip their classrooms, they will begin to ask questions. Why am I having students move on when they really don’t understand or haven’t mastered this foundational concept? Why am I making students do 50 problems on double-digit addition when they have clearly mastered this? Why am I not letting students apply these concepts in a more real-world context?

As they ask those questions, we will advance this field forward in some pretty exciting ways.

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.