A great deal of online education is innovation at the margins but there are exceptions


The online programs I admire are those that demonstrate how a hyper networked community of learners and doers can be thoughtfully brought together to share ideas and work together

Digital Assets

Evolution not Just automation

By Damian Saccocio

There are, to be sure, many areas of science and technology experiencing rapid and exciting progress: from genomics to energy production and storage to digital communications and interactive media.  That digital communications and interactive media became the focus for much of my career was partly because of my BS in Computer Engineering but also because of simple timing.  I arrived in Washington D.C. in 1988 with a Master’s in political science from MIT just as digital communications was emerging as profoundly important aspect of the nation’s S&T infrastructure. During the next 25 years it would explode beyond the academic and corporate research arena to dramatically transform all content industries from news to music and from TV to, I would argue, now education.

With the first staff officer position at the newly created Computer Science and Telecommunications Board within the well respected National Research Council, I had an unusually special perch from which to view the complex evolution of the internet from a largely academic network toward an indispensable set of technologies, governance structures, and organizations that underlay so much of today’s modern life.   Among the key challenges on this long and continuing road was the need to bridge raw technical capabilities with market needs in terms of sustainable business models.

I researched this very question as part of my doctoral work at Rensselaer on the development of the flat panel display industry.  The overwhelming factor, I concluded at the time and still believe to be true today, is the fit of the opportunity within the organization’s overall corporate strategy.  After graduating and spending a decade at America Online precisely at the intersection of business models and technology, I find many of these same themes to be present in discussion of the future of higher education.

Just this past term, for example, I was standing in front of a group of 35 MBA students discussing innovation; specifically the difference between process and product innovation.  The distinction is important, I suggested, and could be seen in the very act I was doing at that very moment -- teaching a "course."  EdTech has been my professional work focus for the last several years and even among higher ed professionals I’m frequently surprised at how many think educational innovation is putting one’s lecture slides online.  I suggested to the class that even though we were experimenting this very semester with a new and very capable Learning Management System (LMS), that our use of it was not all that innovative -- at least not in terms of the course as a product.  Instead we were in the midst of process innovation.

A better, faster, delivery content delivery tool and management system was definitely a good thing, but the educational goals of the course, the amount of writing and reading homework, even the business model underlying their participation in the course had not changed much if at all.  Nor had the basic cadence of coming to class, listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion changed very much.  To be fair, the students could get my paper comments back much sooner and even respond to my comments -- this is great and nudges up to product innovation but only at the margins.

Again, to be clear, there is nothing wrong - indeed there is much to admire - with putting class material online.  But even when a school video records an entire program worth of lectures and delivers this to students far from campus, that is not really fundamentally innovating the education product.  Such efforts can expand access and generate incremental revenue but they are not truly game changers.

Instead, when thinking about online programs those I admire most are those that do not seek just to emulate the traditional experience.  Rather it is those that are thinking creatively about a more individualized experience with new modes of learning and community interaction.  It is those that seek to leverage the explosion of mobile apps as a way to open new opportunities to rethink and restructure the learning experience.  It is those that are exploring how creatively integrating short quizzes and other assessments can engage and deepen the learning experience. And it is those programs which are able to step back and consider how a hyper networked community of learners and doers can be thoughtfully brought together to share ideas and work together. 

It is just this type of thinking that is motivating a 500+ year old institution of learning and service.  The global society of Jesuits have been innovating across the education front for a very long time, often at the very margins of society. Course Gateway started working with some leaders of the Jesuit community at Georgetown University in 2014.   Over the course of the following 18 months, we assisted in the dialogue around and eventual building of a global archive of curated digital learning, research, and instructional materials wrapped within a robust set of collaboration and community features all available via JesuitDigitalNetwork.org.

While JDN is still most appropriately called a prototype, the direction is clear -- discovering, contributing, and discussing digital assets is central to any global organization concerned with learning.  Where once such statements would be but aspirational, continued rapid advances in content management, publishing, search, and digital collaboration make such infrastructure investments in reach of most organizations.  The issue today is not whether such platforms can be built but how best to integrate them with the broader S&T global communities and support them with a comparably robust internal content creation, publishing, and community management organization.

Not all organizations need to embrace all dimensions of what is now possible.  But to truly be innovative and join those at the forefront of what surely is a major new wave in global research, educational pedagogy, and collaboration models, an organization should not just automate but take its best characteristics and evolve forward.  This type of innovation has implications for virtually all of post-secondary education, from colleges and universities to company classrooms to community colleges:  Ultimately and inevitably we are all entering a brave new world with life-long just-in-time learning driving economic change across virtually every industry. To survive and flourish the need is to evolve, not just automate existing processes and workflows.  Understanding this need is the first very necessary step.    Executing successfully, however, is perhaps an even greater challenge.  Both are areas The New Advisory Group and our network of colleagues are especially well suited and indeed eager with which to help.

Damian Saccocio at The New Advisory Group