The number of news and blog items about the imminent disruption of higher education are increasing daily. Today I read three in the space of an hour:  The Reimagining of Higher Education, The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling as We Speak, and The Stanford Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever.

Yet, it’s not as though we haven’t known this was coming for some time, despite the second article above suggesting the first sign came only last year. There have been signs of the change around for years, but the trigger point that moved the disruption into the mainstream space seems to be the Stanford professors who ran massive, online courses last year. One of them, Sebastian Thrun, has set up Udacity and left Stanford.

This move, from a highly prestigious institution, was a signal that the game was changing, and that we need to pay attention. And now, it seems that institutions are scrambling to work out what it means for them. And we are talking about it as if it was something that we’d just seen.

All disruptive change has early signals of its coming, but it is not until this sort of trigger moves the disruption to the mainstream that we start to take notice. And by then, it’s usually too late to shape the change – we are left with little choice but to react. Take a look at this slide which shows my mash-up of the work of a number of people on the life cycle of a trend.

The signals of change emerge on the left, and strengthen over time, until they reach mainstream on the right. Only then do we reject the types of responses we have if we do find a signal that goes against the status-quo (like that’s rubbish!). Only then do we begin to think this trend might be something we need do need to pay attention to now. Our responses are limited now though – consider how could responses might have been different if attention had been paid to the disruption at the emerging stage?

Apply this to disrupting higher education. Think back a few years. Educational technology, which has been around for some time, started to strengthen in terms of what individuals were able to do beyond videos of lectures. Social media allowed people to begin to collaborate with students, and the sage on stage model of delivery began to erode. Is social media integrated fully into classes today? I don’t think so.

Online education has been around for years, but has taken off as a viable alternative in the last few years. Most institutions have responded by trying to replicate their face-to-face classroom set up, and called it blended learning – a bit of face-to-face, a bit of online. I am probably being unkind here, but my personal experience of a 100% online course last year was intellectually painful because of how the technology was used.

Then the Khan Academy, Academic Earth and other online educational sites began to be established. There has been resistance and challenge to this form of educational content and delivery; however, it seems this form of online education is here to stay.

Content curation was emerging – but we didn’t call it that. It was – and is – called open educational  resources, but with the rise of content curation, it’s becoming open resources that can be used for educational purposes. This trend is a signal of the disintermediation of content from delivery and it’s getting stronger. Has it changed how most academics prepare their lectures? I don’t think so. (Check out these content curators: E-Learning and Online Teaching, Digital Media and Learning, Social Media in Higher Education, The iPad Classroom.)

The cost of education for students has been increasing. In the past year or so, cost has been identified as a disruptor. Have we developed new costing models or still tweaking the existing models? Are we thinking about costing models that would work on a mass scale? I don’t think so.

DIY Education has been mooted – only possible because of all these earlier developments. This requires a particular type of student to self-educate, but it’s coming. Do we see DIY education as viable? I don’t think so. But it might be in the future.

Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovative University, started a conversation about how the traditional university can change from the inside out in response to disruptive forces – rather than being forced to change when the disruption becomes so strong it can’t be ignored by anyone. An important point if you want to shape change and its impact. Has this thinking started to change the way we structure universities, or design curriculum, or manage our work? Maybe, but probably not.

The signals of higher education disruption were there if you choose to look. Signals are weak though, and difficult to see. When you are busy and ‘infowhelmed‘, looking for signals takes time that you think you don’t have. So you pay attention only when the trend hits mainstream – when your only choice is to react. If you pay attention to the signals, you could be proactive – which people tell me when I work with them is one of their dearest wishes – to be able to have the time to be proactive in their strategic responses to change.

Now I’m obviously in favour of continuing environmental scanning, and looking for weak signals, and having an open mind about what is possible in the future. However, finding the signal is only the first step. You then have to think about the implications for your organisation in a very systematic way, and do further research to confirm that the signal is important. You have to spend time on it, and choose action over waiting.

And, most importantly, you have to be willing to change the way you think when you find a signal that challenges the status-quo and what you think is real or rubbish.  As Marshall McLuhan said:

“When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.” (Thanks to the fabulous Maria Popova at Brain Pickings and her article on Marshall McLuhan for this quote.)

The last sentence is the key: how does this signal challenge our assumptions about the forms, structures, processes and norms we have in universities today? Questions then start to surface:

  • Will face-to-face-education last? If it does, what will it look like?
  • What are the implications for our organisational structure, our staffing capabilities, our technological infrastructure?
  • Where will our students come from, and how will they want to learn?
  • How will universities be funded?
  • How and in what ways do we need to think differently about what we do?
  • What changes do we need to make today?

The first four aren’t new questions; many have been asking these for some time, and we are grappling with them. The last two doesn’t get asked very often though, because thinking differently here means significant change, and we humans resist change, particularly when it undermines assumptions at the very core of how we work and that we hold dear. Strategy today rarely means quantum leaps to a new model, yet disrupting education calls for a new model, not tweaking the old. Answering the first four questions requires us to answer the last two at the same time.

Universities do risk disappearing as an organisational form if we don’t change the way we respond to higher education disruption. If the reaction to managerialism in universities over the past 20 years or so is anything to go by, however, then struggling and fighting against the coming disruption will only make life more difficult for those who work in universities, and do little to position them as a viable knowledge community in the future. Or is the disruption so strong that the old models will ultimately be cast aside?

I’m reminded of a metaphor someone used in my research on the academic-administrator divide, when I asked them what would happen to the university if nothing changed:

A decaying empire – a great monolithic thing on the landscape. Structures and processes to allow it to grow, but becoming stagnant on the inside and increasingly irrelevant. Choked by vines growing up and over it.

I really dislike this metaphor for a whole lot of reasons, but it’s one that could become reality if we don’t start looking for weak signals and paying attention to them, and if we don’t truly change the way we think about the future of higher education and universities, and how we approach disruption to traditional models of learning.

This means freeing ourselves of the assumptions that constrain our thinking while identifying the assumptions that need to underpin new models and ways of working.

Most importantly, we need to re-think the idea of the future university as collaboratively as possible, and in ways that involve many voices. We need to find the time to think about what weak signals mean for the future of the university – today. The dominance of the ivory tower is past, and it’s up to us to shape its replacement(s).