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Jan 28, 2019

Innovation and the ego

In education, both K-12 and higher, too many innovations are driven by leaders’ egos, and not by the needs of their respective organizations. How it works is obvious: to jump to the next career level, or to maintain good graces of one’s employer, one needs to show something new. On a larger scale, any institution want to project a public image of innovation, not something stable and stale. The public is not interested in funding something that is good but boring; educators need a story to captivate the public collective imagination. In America, and much of the world, the idea of progress and innovation has firmly taken root. The pressure is really coming from outside, and it percolates through the system, from presidents to department chairs – everyone wants to distinguish oneself as an innovator, with a line on one’s resume to prove it.

This would not be bad, if we collectively did not spend significant resources on ego-driven innovations. The cost could be direct, or indirect, but it can be significant. Among other things, ego-innovations contribute to the so-called “mission creep” phenomenon, where a university adds more and more projects, structures, units to its core mission, depleting the resources, and muddying the latter. Time and resources spent on frivolous innovations are not spent on university’s core mission – improving its programs and ensuring student success.

Examples are abound. The relatively recent craze for MOOCs prompted many most prestigious universities to join either Coursera or EdX, and pour many millions of dollars in developing these free public resources. They were supposed to revolutionize higher education, but didn’t. I have seen cases where massive restructurings, reshuffling faculty and programs into different configurations were sold as innovation. Those can be very costly in terms of time, but people are rarely more productive in new administrative structures. Neither they ever cut the actual cost. Unfortunately, most of educational technologies have been a flop. While computer-connected projectors were probably worth it (although they are just a tiny step up from transparencies), none of the smart boards and similar interactive technologies have been very effective. The various data analytics software platforms are still an open question. I keep my mind open, but right now would not bet a $100 that they will significantly affect academic outcomes.

William Baumol identified one of the reason for so many flops in 1967: All economic activities can be divided “into two types: technologically progressive activities in which innovations, capital accumulation, and economies of large scale all make for a cumulative rise in output per man hour and activities which, by their very nature, permit only sporadic increases in productivity.” [i] In other words, education is much more relational than it is informational. We do not yet have any significant breakthroughs in terms of relational technologies, and it is not clear whether they are possible or desirable. Education is not like manufacturing or transportation; its core activity remains heavily manual, and not automatable.

Innovation is good when it answers to clearly identified organizational challenges, and has reasonable chances of success. Online teaching is not cheaper than its f2f equivalent, but it allowed to significantly expand the student population by reaching out to remote, less mobile, and working populations. That is an economic as well as technological innovation that is still not fully realized. Universities and schools have a lot to gain from reducing transactional costs by digitizing their organizational transactions. Things like purchasing, hiring, student registration, troubleshooting, petitions, advising, etc. – those represent a great innovation field that has been barely touched. It is not something sexy you can sell to the public, but simplifying and automating the bureaucratic routines still has a large potential for cost reduction and making everyone a little happier. Many innovations are possible in designing programs that reflect today’s and tomorrow’s labor landscape.

Innovation in education is a risky game, which is why it cannot be played by leaders’ egos. We need a very critical approach to expensive innovations.

[i] William J. Baumol, "Macroeconomics of unbalanced growth: the anatomy of urban crisis." The American economic review 57, no. 3 (1967): 415-416.

1 comment:

  1. Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin - I read that one in 1989. Maybe worth a revisit. Gravity wins, always.