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The Innovative University

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When I read Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, I enjoyed Clayton Christensen and his co-authors’ application of the potential of disruptive innovations to the K-12 classroom.  As a result, I looked forward to reading his new book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.  It didn’t disappoint me.

Christensen and his co-author, Henry J. Eyring, take a different tack in this book.  Approximately 60-75 percent of the book provides a narrative of two institutions of higher education, Harvard University and Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho.  While many observers of higher education may not consider Harvard an innovator, decisions made by its presidents over its several hundred year history have influenced the direction of American higher education.  Whether it’s the four-year baccalaureate degree, the creation of various majors, the design of a baccalaureate degree to include general education courses, professional schools with a requirement that applicants complete a bachelor’s degree before matriculating, faculty tenure, the “publish or perish” culture for faculty, or athletic programs; most of those foundational principles that we take for granted today had an evolutionary turn at Harvard.  Christensen and Eyring make the case that the problem with higher ed today is that most four year colleges and universities aspire to “be like Harvard” but only five percent have a realistic chance of pulling it off.

The disrupter to the sector according to Christensen and Eyring is online education.  Whether it’s a for-profit university (DeVry University is one of those cited in the article) or a non-profit (Western Governors University is cited), the authors maintain that the cost of operating online universities is half of the cost of operating a traditional university for many reasons (no athletic teams, no dormitories, no cafeterias, expensive student services, use of adjunct faculty, etc.).  The lack of a need for physical classrooms provides online universities with the ability to offer classes year round.  Also, the recent focus of accrediting bodies on learning outcomes has caused the online programs to take advantage of technology and measure outcomes more effectively in many cases than traditional programs whose accreditation was achieved decades ago.

The story of Ricks College in Idaho has a Harvard connection through the Eyring family and others.  Ricks’ beginnings as a two year college and evolution to a four-year, teaching university is a fascinating story.  Along the way, Ricks’ direction was heavily influenced by its affiliation with and sponsorship by the Mormon Cchurch.  The authors note the elimination of intercollegiate athletics, upward move to a four-year institution, implementation of internship programs, implementation of blended learning programs by utilizing remote sites operated by the Mormon Church for periodic face-to-face classes, and the pricing of the university’s online programs on the margin in order to compete with the online programs run by for-profit universities.  According to the authors, BYU-Idaho is competitive because its leaders didn’t wait to be overrun by the disruptive online programs.

Christensen and Eyring make a great case for online learning as a disruption and provide a few relevant examples of the remaking of BYU-Idaho into a thriving institution in an era when many colleges and universities are taking steps backward rather than forward.  However, their book does not provide detailed analyses of best practices in online education that are continually refined by online educators on a monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly basis.  By the time a traditional institution wakes up to the need for online courses and programs, it may find itself far behind the learning curve and even further behind in its ability to implement the cultural changes required to compete in a world influenced by the pace of technology.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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