Beyond the Borg Fallacy in higher-ed discussions

I will forgive Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc’s references to Clayton Christensen and disruption because LeBlanc’s Finding New Business Models article largely ignores Christensen’s ilk.1 We need to get beyond the disruption rhetoric’s Borg Fallacy, the belief that a particular form of change is inevitable (aka “resistance is futile”). LeBlanc points out that the fragmentation of higher education in the United States is critical to understanding its challenges. That fragmentation means that the correct questions revolve around what the role of specific institutions and sectors can be. And that selection can only happen if we ignore Christensen’s universalistic claim that Disruption is Here. If resistance truly is futile, institutions have no choices but only a single path.2

As an example of where he usefully ignores Christensen, LeBlanc points to the abortive attempt in 2012 to fire the University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, a move reportedly taken over her reluctance to move at warp speed on MOOCs and whatever else hit a few major donors’ fancy. LeBlanc observes that UVA’s position in higher education revolves around residential undergraduate students and networking, and that the deep error of UVA’s Board of Visitors in 2012 was to misunderstand the role of the university. This critique is close in substance to Siva Vaidyanathan’s analysis at the time.3 And both LeBlanc and Vaidyanathan are right: Helen Dragas and her allies had no clue what they were talking about in pushing UVA to invest heavily in MOOCs as a logical strategy.

So how should we look at broad change in higher ed, and can we given the fragmentation? LeBlanc proposes three elements of higher education change, and he argues that individual colleges and universities will need to pick strategies that are coherent and specific to their position in the collegiate firmament. To LeBlanc, what can save higher education is the reorganization of traditional faculty work, the use of technology to improve education, and the switch from seat-based programs to outcome-based learning. Because SNHU uses that three-legged stool in its own expansion strategy, I am not surprised he assumes those will be universal. And from SNHU’s former position as a tuition-dependent non-profit with local enrollment, that approach has allowed LeBlanc to move the institution dramatically. SNHU has created academic units that are outside the traditional residential structure, essentially treating online operations as an autonomous structure. At many universities, there is a long history of such start-up operations that are ignored by the larger academic units, essentially academic skunkworks. Sometimes they are non-credit operations, such as extension units. Sometimes they are small campuses that the larger campuses ignore or marginalize. At SNHU, online operations have become the academic skunkworks that swallowed the university.

So SNHU’s experience leads LeBlanc to assume that all major changes will have the same ingredients. I am a little skeptical, in part because I don’t believe the shape of institutional change is predetermined even if the existence of change is predictable. And LeBlanc’s three-ingredient list is almost as deterministic as Christensen’s claims, just different in content. I will leave the critique of reorganized faculty work to others–apart from noting the historian’s sneaky instinct that faculty life in SNHU’s online unit(s) will evolve and be an interest case study at some point. Rather, I think that LeBlanc’s observation of niches and fragmentation is more accurate than his assumption of one true set of change mechanisms.

So, what to make of LeBlanc’s three-legged stool of change? A few thoughts:

  • Reorganization of faculty work: where LeBlanc is wrong. Historically, work reorganization is a common way to shift industries and entire economies; in the U.S., division of labor preceded factory mechanization by decades and true assembly lines by about a century. That reorganization is highly contingent and negotiable. LeBlanc argues that the big reorganization involves further division of labor by faculty function: course and curriculum design, advising, “delivering” instruction. That assumes no viable alternative in efforts to reorganize higher education. We have already seen reorganization of work through academic casualization/adjunctifiction. Many institutions are trying to “do the right thing” by hiring full-time non-tenure-track instructors (also called clinical faculty, lecturers, etc.), as much to reduce turnover and maintain some possibility of managing instructional assignments as to be ethical. That effort will create better working conditions than many adjuncts face; it also crystallizes a divide between research-active faculty with lower course loads and more job security, on the one hand, and non-tenure-track teaching faculty, on the other. I suspect the part-time contingent/full-time contingent/tenure-stream divide is the bigger change, and it is easier to accommodate within a range of institutional structures.
  • Reorganization of faculty work: where LeBlanc may be closer. The likeliest exception here is in course design. The University of Texas-Austin’s Jen Ebbeler wrote a series of thoughtful posts on her changing role as she redesigned a course over the summer. In June, for example, she argued that faculty needed to become more comfortable designing courses that they may not be the primary teachers of. In July, she extended this to an argument very similar to LeBlanc’s, about the changing nature of higher education and how faculty roles might change. Most of these role changes are likely to happen within institutions; this is the course parallel to curriculum design, where it is often one set of faculty who design a new program and an overlapping but not identical set of faculty who have to adjust the original plans to reality over the next few years. Maybe open educational resources might allow this to extend across institutions, but that will require some trust on the part of faculty that their colleagues at other institutions have designed materials well enough for their needs. Since a large portion of required undergraduate classes have a one-syllabus, many-sections structure (math and composition, among others), this is not too far of a stretch for faculty but generally within a single institution.
  • Technology: where LeBlanc is glossing over a critical issue. LeBlanc conflates technology platforms with business decisions when he writes that the “most exciting use of technology in higher education is to help create new business models that allow us to better serve more people at lower cost.” Hmmn… that’s possible but far from likely. Technology can also lock in decisions when universities commit to a particular platform for part of its operations. More than 15 years ago, the primary market advantage of Blackboard was in satisfying a university’s legal obligations towards FERPA and other privacy requirements; it was and remains a business-technology company, not an education company. So how do we tell when a particular technology is going to change institutional patterns and not just speed them up? In too many colleges and universities, decisions about technology are not taken from a strategic standpoint, or they are taken at best from a standpoint of hoping that last year’s Software as a Service will find next year’s unicorn. That fantasy allows institutions to think that signing an exploitative contract with Consultants Plus Services To Vulnerable Universities (not the name of any actual company) will lead them to the promised land, if only they agree to fork over 40-80% of extra revenues.
  • Technology: where SNHU is probably outperforming LeBlanc’s rhetoric. One critical issue missing from LeBlanc’s article is the ability to combine some strategic decision-making with independence from straightjacket vendors. I do not know SNHU’s online operations well, but I am guessing that SNHU’s key staff do much more than pray that technology leads to new business models. I bet they make critical decisions every few months on what services they need to bid out, rebid, cancel, build in-house, set up redundancies for, etc. If your university has signed a multimillion-dollar contract for services where there is little to no accountability for performance, no exit, no alternative, you are not using technology to create new business models, except perhaps for your vendors. Maybe technology can help every college or university change fundamental ways of operating, but the more critical need is the ability to fire a vendor and find a substitute, or renegotiate a contract to the university’s best interest. The best technology plan is one that matches a broader set of strategic goals that the faculty and administration are behind. The best technology relationship is where vendors understand a college or university’s goals and also understand they’re not in the driver’s seat.
  • Competency-based education: where the rubber meets the Registrar. The test of competency-based education is not whether individuals graduate from programs. The real test of competency-based education is when the first student transfers away from an SNHU competency-based program, and some portion of that earned academic credit is accepted by the other college or university, and accepted with minimal fuss. Until and unless competencies acquire some form of currency between colleges and universities, they will be the educational equivalent of in-game credits, a higher-education Linden dollar without exchange value.
  • Competency-based education: where a critical federal waiver can help. My guess is that the most likely broad reach of competency-based education is not the entire program in competencies (as SNHU is now doing) but in partial fulfillment of degree requirements–for example, where a student with 80-90 credit hours from several institutions can demonstrate existing knowledge for a college or university’s general-education requirement and then focus on a limited set of specialization courses to complete a degree. Right now, that’s not feasible in most places because of the structure of federal financial aid, which does not allow mixing of seat-time with competency-based programs. But the student-aid Experimental Sites program could theoretically allow programs  that mix degree requirements that could be competency-based with requirements that truly require an investment of time. And someone should be using the Experimental Sites program for that purpose.

I’ve consistently enjoyed reading LeBlanc because his experience injects a sense of realism into what is often unicorns-and-rainbows theorizing about higher education’s future. The fact that I disagree with him on some key aspects of his proposed stool of change does not change the pleasure I find in reading his thoughts about higher education. Even if he still cites Christensen.

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  1. Passing references and one weird chart do not count. []
  2. I will skip for now the common criticisms of Christensen as either a business historian or visionary, except to observe that there is something deeply flawed about a theory that first claims a driving logic of change, a sort of hipster capitalist version of Marxist materialism, and then uses improvisational, contingent business history to confirm that deterministic logic. []
  3. Okay, Vaidyanathan was much snarkier, and funnier, and sharper in his critique of public-university governance by political appointees. But both he and LeBlanc point out that the Board of Visitors didn’t have their act together in understanding UVA’s elite position and reputational reliance on the residential undergraduate experience. []