What Happens When External Regulation Holds Back #HigherEd Innovation?

Regulation makes disruption difficult to predict, which is why I offer no certain predictions for the future of higher education. Any number of recent news events remind us about these regulations and the sometimes unexpected results.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the amount of regulation is not pushing the disruption further beyond the reach of many accrediting bodies, to a place where it can grow by providing what the establishment perceives to be a sub par experience to a population that is by very definition largely ignored by most higher education establishments. Before I explain and expand upon that claim, allow me to back up and comment a bit more on the role and impact of external regulations.

There is shortage of oversight in the online higher education world today. Higher education is an increasingly regulated industry, not simply from a single source, but from hundreds of distinct entities. A University may need to comply with discipline/program-specific outside agencies, state government agencies, federal regulations, as well as regional accrediting bodies. For online Universities, it is also necessary that they get authorization to serve students in each state in which a student resides. Consider that states have different processes and requirements for authorization, some that require significant time and money. It is becoming increasingly necessary to have full-time people dedicated entirely to state authorizations and related tasks. For a small college that seeks to serve a tiny niche population around the country through online learning, that is enough to prevent the college from even attempting to fulfill the mission across time and space.

What makes this even more challenging is the fact that there are moving targets, not just one, but multiple moving targets as government agencies and various accrediting bodies continue to review and revise their standards, regulations, and guidelines.  If a University is not diligent about remaining focused upon the primary mission, it can become easy for a multitude of decisions and efforts to be focused upon little more than external compliance. Significant time and financial resources that might otherwise be devoted to improving student learning, engagement, retention, and persistence go toward these tasks.  This is the reality of higher education today.

I am not writing this to argue against the importance of some measure of external accountability. Universities (public, private, non-profit, or for-profit) are social enterprises that exist for the public good, and as such, it is important that they be held accountable.  Furthermore, regional accrediting bodies cast a vision for a peer-review process where similar peer institutions review and offer (in many cases) excellent constructive feedback. In this way, they serve a valuable role in contemporary higher education.  I have personally experienced several site visits from accrediting bodies, and the preparation, visits and subsequent reports all helped in any number of ways, providing encouragement, guidance, and useful suggestions.

Now allow me to draw our attention to an instance where these regulations clash with online higher education innovations. Wade Roush put together an excellent article on the recent accreditation issues faced by Altius Education and Ivy Bridge University, an innovative model for offering online education to undergraduate students. The result is that Ivy Bridge will close and all of those students need to transfer mid-year or look for alternative plans. In the article, Roush quotes the CEO of Altius, Paul Freedman, stating that, “entrepreneurs building new for-profit online degree or certificate program have three choices”:

  1. start from scratch, but he further indicated that the last tier 1 University to do that was 100 years ago;
  2. acquire a University that already has accreditation; or
  3. partner with an accredited University (the Altius strategy).

These are not the only choices.  I can think of several and I am certain that there are dozens of others.  Allow me to start with one alternative, intrapreneuship. This is an online entrepreneurial initiative that is planted, grown, and nurtured by the faculty and administration within a given University. This can certainly involve investments in new talent that help to shape and lead such efforts, but it can be done well within an existing University, working with the intimate involvement of the board, administration, faculty, students, and any number of other valuable stakeholders. This allows careful attention to the University mission, vision, values, goals and strategic planning process. It can be done in a way that mixes tradition and innovation, both benefitting from one another.  It can be done in a way that honors the existing policies and procedures in the University while also allowing the necessary freedom needed for any innovation to flourish. This is a workable option for many schools today, ranging from smaller liberal arts institutions to massive state schools.

I will offer a fifth option as well, and this brings me back to the closing statement in my first paragraph.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the amount of regulation is not pushing the disruption further beyond the reach of many accrediting bodies, to a place where it can grow by providing what the establishment perceives to be a sub par experience to a population that is by very definition largely ignored by most higher education establishments.

This fifth option for online higher education innovation is to engage in efforts that do not seek or need accreditation or the offering of government supported financial aid. This is happening now, and it is flourishing, some forms gaining massive media attention.  The most recognizable example is the Massive Open Online Course. There is usually no credit, no transcript, no tuition, and no accreditation. In many instances, Universities are offering them, but most are not doing it as part of a formal degree of any sort. While some studies suggest that most who are taking advantage of them are people with a college degree already in hand, I see no evidence that it will stay that way. Even if it does, I suspect that such offerings are replacing what would have otherwise been pursuit of graduate degrees or coursework.  At the same time, there initiatives like the one that I wrote about recently, the Black Mountain Self-organized Learning Environment, provide mentoring & coaching, a social and intellectual community, a great location, and resources…but no formal degree, nothing that requires oversight from the same entities that watch traditional higher education. Instead, these are places where learners prove what they know by showing what they have done, the sort of thing that gets you a job when you have it on your transcript. In fact, what they do may actually be a job, a startup that reaches hundreds, tens of thousands, or even millions.

Alongside this, we have experiments like Degreed: The Digital Lifelong Diploma, an online resource that allows you to document what you have learned through traditional education, but also through life experiences and accomplishments. While these options will not work for someone aspiring to being a medical doctor (back to the regulatory influence), they still offer a “higher education” alternative to the regulated efforts of accredited colleges and Universities.

Following dozens of initiatives that fit into this fifth group, if I had to guess, this is where the disruption will start (has started, I mean).  This is off the radar of many within the higher education ecosystem and, as noted before, serving a population that is, by definition, not a priority for colleges and University. I say “by definition”, because these efforts are serving people who are not going to college. They might choose this self-directed path right out of high school (or home school), or they might get a first college degree and then skip any graduate study, instead embracing the hackademic approach to life and learning. I add to this the broad open source movement that that is impacting everything from software development to publishing to education. These are largely outside of the standard higher education world so much that most academics reading these last paragraphs will dismiss them as improbable, even foolish speculation. The fact that such responses dominate seems to only further support my suspicion that this is where we will see the greatest disruptive innovation.

I started by explaining that I make no certain predictions about higher education.  This is not a prediction, but I am willing to call it a viable possibility. And just as many see the protestant reformation as leading to the counter-reformation, I will not be surprised if this fifth way does not lead to a reformation within more traditional forms of higher education as well.