Who Will be the Winners & Losers in Educational Innovation?

In Outthink the Competition: How A New Generation of Strategists Sees Options Others Ignore, Kaihan Krippendorff explains four steps that repeat themselves in different areas of society. The show up in warfare, sports and business.

1. “People grow rigid: they accept that a certain way of doing things is the best and stop seeking better options” (p. 10).

2. Someone chooses an untrodden path, trying something outside of that common way.

3. “The new strategy proves superior” (p. 10).

4. Others try to mimic the practice, but it often takes them too long to catch up.

To what extent do these four steps apply in education? The author describes the steps in areas like sports and warfare, where there is a clear competitor. It is team against team, army against army, or one business competing for the largest market share in a company within the same sector. While there is competition between learning organizations, I have difficulty recalling examples of where one learning organization completely dominates and shuts down another, although one can make an argument for that happening in education businesses. But in higher education or K-12 education in the United States, I don’t see strong evidence for it (even when The University of Phoenix had 300,000 students).

Krippendorff decribes these four steps as outthinking the competition instead of overpowering or out-spending others. However, we still ample overpowering and out-spending in education. The fastest growing online degree programs in higher education are not thriving because they have identified a new strategy that is unquestionable superior to the online learning offered by others. Instead, so far it is largely about the size of the marketing budget. The school with 20,000 online students is usually spending millions on marketing. That is why they are “winning” in terms of the number of students. Or, is that increased marketing spend supposed to be the superior new strategy? It is superior in that it gains the attention of prospective learners over the lesser known options. Yet, it isn’t actually a superior educational product or service compared to others.

When MOOCs gained mainstream media attention, many argued that the MOOC movement might disrupt traditional higher education. Yet, according to Krippendorff’s model, that would call for them to show themselves to be superior in some way that is central to the decisions and values of prospective students. They are certainly more scalable and the price is right, but they don’t retain like traditional classes, lead to a valued credential (at least not typically or not yet), or prove to have superior academic results compared  to practices that could be used in more traditional online or face-to-face courses. Instead, so far they seem to be serving a different purpose and learner profile than what is being served by more traditional learning organizations.

What about one of my favorite recent topics, micro-credentials and digital badges. I happen to be part of one of the first college degrees in the country that is built around competency-based digital badges, but I don’t see evidence that this is going to shut down programs with traditional or other models. It has perceived value to some, and I contend that it is showing itself superior to some more traditional feedback and grading practices, but it is not so unbelievably superior…at least not based upon what people currently want. The same seems to be true about competency-based education, although that is a relatively new movement and we may well find CBE to have a larger and more widespread impact than we might first expect.

So, is there an example of this 4-step model in education? I suspect that there is, but to look at it in education, we may need to redefine what we mean by “the competition.” Perhaps the competition in education is not primarily the other learning organizations. While schools compete for students, there are so many different needs and wants of prospective students that there is currently ample room for many (but not all) schools to succeed (although time will tell if some futurist predictions about mass school closings on the college level will come true in the next decade or two). Instead, what if we looked Krippendorff’s model, applied it to education, but thought of the competition in a different way.

To explain this, I’ll share one of Krippendorff’s examples of the 4-step model from football in the early 1900s, when Notre Dame defeated Army by using the forward pass in a way that it had not been done before. They used long passes instead of the short rugby-like passes that were commonplace by many other teams. This was possible due to a result of a change in the rules that year, allowing for passes more than 20 yards. However, notice that this didn’t shut Army down permanently. They, along with other teams, caught on to the new style, adopted it, and it changed the face the game up to this day (pp. 9-10).

That seems to be a more likely scenario in education. We have very interesting and potentially promising practices that may well show themselves to be superior to past practices. They might include options like flipped instruction, alternatives to the letter grade system, adaptive learning software for math instruction, data-driven decision-making in education, competency-based education for some educational purposes, and others. If one or more of these practices proves to be truly superior for certain purposes in education, they may well defeat those who insist on persisting with past practices. Yet, as long as organizations are willing to adapt, I don’t expect to see a massive disruption in the industry that results in widespread closings.

Of course, I could be wrong. While my work and research is on the edges, venturing into new and emerging practices in education, I accept the possibility that I am somehow stuck on step #1 while some other person, group or organization (perhaps one outside of the formal field of education) may come along with a model that proves to be unquestionably superior. Maybe many of us will not be able to respond or catch up fast enough. In general, I see plenty who are responding…at least on the organizational level.

Where I have more concern is on the individual level. I see some educators who insist on rejecting and ridiculing the educational changes and innovations around us. Some don’t consider it worth their time to respond. Others laugh and mock, or go the more civil route by trying to defeat it in a public or intellectual discourse. Still others are on the attack, using words, legislation and other clubs to beat down these emerging practices, fighting to return to a past time or to keep a beloved practice. Those are the ones for whom I am concerned. As I’ve said to many audiences, I do not expect the latest innovation (technology or otherwise) to soon replace teachers. I do, however, see teachers who become skilled with the best and most promising practices as replacing those who resist and reject them. On this individual level (and in instances where certain organizations refuse to adapt), perhaps Krippendorff’s concept of outthinking will prove true in education.