Sustaining innovation done right

Last week I listened to a wonderful September 2008 podcast interview [27:21 m] by Paul Miller with Steve Carson, External Relations Director for MIT OpenCourseWare and the first President of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. The benefits MIT is realizing from their open courseware initiatives stand in stark contrast to the hostility directed at their TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) classroom innovations for teaching physics. I previously mentioned the push back from current students and recent graduates to the innovative departure from the lecture format. These two attempts at avoiding a disruption of higher ed reveal how much of academia will function as it's own worst enemy while some sustaining innovations will demonstrate a Darwinian "survival of the fittest". First I'll explore how successful some attempts at sustaining innovations can be.

In the podcast, Steve Carson revealed how many constituencies have benefited from putting course materials and lectures online:
  • College applicants view the archive to preview the possibility of attending MIT, to compare alternative colleges and to decide on the best choice for their aptitudes or interests.
  • Current enrollment views the archive to review course content, to clear up confusion and to prepare for exams.
  • Alumni revisits the archive to refresh their memory of technical content, prepare for professional licensing exams and equip themselves for career changes.
  • Faculty explore the open courseware of colleagues to get ideas for improving their own presentations, to raise the bar on their own classroom conduct and to discover faculty with overlapping research interests in other departments and/or universities around the globe
Those faculty members who have taken full advantage of the open courseware have stopped lecturing in class. Conventional class activities have become the new homework. Former homework assignments are the new class work. Students come to class to work together on the homework problems. They take advantage of the F2F situation to assimilate the thought processes of the faculty member and benefits from classmates' different understandings. They problem solve together as if collegial interactions are appropriate with students, not just with academic colleagues. They achieve the best of both the continued delivery of content via linear lectures and the use of classrooms for thinking things through together.

This sells the value proposition that "learning is local" which can only happen in person. It keeps customers coming back for the magic elixir they cannot get from the open courseware itself. It maintains the up-market business model of:
  • bringing the problem to the solution that then scales into enormous institutional delivery systems in centralized locations with staggering overhead costs
  • protecting a sellers market that sets the price higher and higher as if "you get more when you pay more" and "value" is defined as tangibles added by the seller
  • offering perishable inventories that require the customers to schedule themselves according to imposed dictates of the institution
  • fueling the prestigious brand and favorable market comparisons by charging higher prices and limiting access to a select few
The benefits to MIT of their open courseware initiatives appear viral. The payoff has taken on a life of its own at no added cost to the institution. The outcomes provide reputation and strategic relationship benefits as well as more measurable payback in enrollment income and alumni donations. These are not linear "cause and effect" dynamics. They appear as cyclical, spill-over and systemic effects that fuel themselves, take on a life of their own and grow exponentially.

Tomorrow I'll explore the opposite extreme: sustaining innovations gone awry.

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