“Ability is of little account without opportunity.” ~ Lucille Ball
After reading the title, it would appear this blog post is about mutually exclusive ideas, but it’s not. I can almost guarantee no one in higher education would put these two topics together, but given today’s interest in educational “disruptive innovation” a historical lesson can be applied. Sometimes disruptive innovations and their impact are not realized until much later on. So how can higher education determine whether an innovation is likely to be truly disruptive and change the face of educational delivery for the better? Let’s try to answer this question by taking a look back in entertainment history.
The first episode of I Love Lucy aired on October 15, 1951. It ran for 6 years and continues on in syndication. During the series run, there were several significant innovative contributions which, looking back, changed the way sitcom television is produced today.
During the 1950s, most shows were filmed in New York and broadcast live to audiences in the East and Central time zone to ensure the highest quality broadcast for the largest viewing audience. The film was then re-broadcast at a lower quality to the West Coast. When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to begin filming, they wanted to stay in Los Angeles instead of moving to New York. In a bold move, Lucy and Desi approached CBS with a proposed concession. They would stay in Los Angeles and to offset the increased costs of filming they would take a cut in salary. Also, Desilu Productions would retain the rights to the film once it aired. Now these decisions were made to accommodate Lucy and Desi’s desire to remain in Los Angeles, what occurred later could not have been predicted.
By using 35 mm film, the show was produced at a higher quality than other shows at the time and is what allows the show to run in syndication today. Second, by retaining the film rights, Desilu Productions was able to control the syndication of the show which at the time did not exist. During the 1950s and 1960s, all shows were aired once. The concept of re-runs had not yet become mainstream in the industry.
While not initially innovative ideas, they ended up being groundbreaking. By demonstrating to the industry what was possible in television production, nearly every prime time sitcom within the next decade decided to relocate to Hollywood making it known as the “entertainment capital of the world”. The retained syndication rights allowed Desilu Productions to became one of the most powerful independent, production companies in television.
There are lessons which can be learned when reflecting on “disruptive innovation” especially in the context of higher education. In order to know if innovation is truly disruptive, it’s important that it be defined. “Disruptive innovation theory, as pioneered by Clayton Christensen, makes a distinction between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. Sustaining innovation is when technology is applied in a way that makes it easier to deploy people and processes to better serve existing customers. In contrast, disruptive innovation is when technology is applied in a way that creates a simpler, more affordable product for a new group of customers who, in most cases, were not buying (or succeeding in) the traditional offering.” (Soares, 2012) This latter definition is where the conversation of competency based education begins.
Competency based education is being described as an educational innovation that has the power to reform American higher education. However, can it stand the test of time and how can we know if it will result in groundbreaking changes to the systems we know today? It’s undisputed that with the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age a new educational demand has been created. The marketplace now requires graduates to be technologically advanced compared to their predecessors. They must demonstrate interpersonal competence, be adaptable to change, and possess the ability to problem solve. These skills are derived from more than just textbook-based knowledge. Competency based education is currently being discussed as an option to address these growing marketplace demands and meet employers’ needs.
For competency based education to become a truly disruptive innovative tool, it should reflect the following characteristics:
- Technology enabler: Technology must be available which removes the in-depth human processes into a rules-based process which can be performed by software. (Soares, 2012) Simply put, technology needs to be thoughtfully integrated to provide a balance between faculty guidance and encouragement and the ability to access learning in multiple ways.
- Business Model Change: The solution must fit the school’s business model and continue to be profitable while delivering more affordable and convenient programs. (Soares, 2012)
- New Value Network: The solution should be able to connect with other schools and complementary services to provide students with continued advancing opportunities. (Soares, 2012) This would include partnerships with educational and non-educational organizations, businesses, and competing institutions.
- Standards: In creating this solution and developing a new way of doing business, it also requires a re-evaluation of the standards for quality that define how the school operates. (Soares, 2012)
Competency based education is not a new educational concept. It has been around since the 1960s, but has not had the traction it recently gained with the limitations experienced by the current “seat-time” education model. Competency based education’s innovation is grounded in the potential to do the following:
- Remove the “time barriers” often associated with higher education.
- Lower the cost of education for motivated, adult learners.
- Structure learning around demonstration of knowledge and skills.
- Measure a graduates’ success in a chosen career field.
- Allow faculty to mentor students instead of lecturing to students.
- Change how “change” is perceived within education.
It remains to be seen if competency based education will live up to the hype that is currently surrounding it; however, one thing is certain, the times are changing and education needs to be the leader who sets the pace.
Can competency based education be the innovation that Desilu Productions was in the 1950s?
For more information on competency based education, please read the Center for American Progress’ article, “A Disruptive Look at Competency-Based Education: How the Innovative Use of Technology Will Transform the College Experience” by Louis Soares, June 2012.