Research universities may live on

Last weekend I finished reading Closing the innovation gap : reigniting the spark of creativity in a global economy by Judy Estrin. She reveals an ecosystem in the U.S. for innovation that functioned superbly in the seventies. Since then there have been changes in government policies affecting intellectual property rights for innovations developed with tax dollars as well as policies impacting immigration of scientific talent from other countries. Large research facilities like Bell Labs, Stanford Research Institute, and IBM's research facility have cut back the basic research that led to eventual applications. The exchanges between corporations, universities, the military and these labs no longer prove to be as beneficial for all of them, as well as our society.

Tuesday, the New York Times ran a feature article titled: "At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard". There were 74 comments added when I read it online yesterday. The article described the $1.25 million dollar classroom for teaching introductory physics with the TEAL system (Technology Enhanced Active Learning). Numerous students who are currently enrolled at M.I.T. criticized the system and the changes brought about to improve attendance, participation and responsiveness. Older graduates extolled the virtues of lecture formats that were lost by the migration to the TEAL system. Educators from other institutions described how the benefits purchased for millions of dollars by M.I.T. can be better achieved with smaller class sizes and personal interactions with the students.

As I pondered the book on innovation and the comments on the article about hi-tech classrooms, I got the impression that traditional colleges are designed to deliver science educations exclusively. They prepare students for research positions in labs, corporations or universities. The exposure to faculty researchers provides great examples for students to emulate, conduct to imitate and contexts to nurture conformist ambitions. The use of what I consider to be "antiquated teaching methods" for students who will work with people, social problems or human systems, function very well when assimilating a technical discipline. The success of research universities at preparing new scientists can then feed into the ecosystem of thriving innovation.

With alumni, students and faculty all opposing "desirable" changes in classroom formats, perhaps universities will remain as they are while they shrink dramatically. They could continue to do what they accomplish very well and lose out on the outcomes they fail at consistently like:
  • preparation for employment or entrepreneurship in the next economy
  • rite of passage into adulthood
  • cultivation of emotional intelligence and creativity
  • assimilation of Web 2.0 technologies
Disruptive innovations could then deliver these outcomes better, cheaper and more efficiently without "attacking the incumbent in their stronghold". The "cuckoo clocks" can avoid design changes while digital clocks invade the market.

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