Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring's new book, The Innovative University is garnering significant attention right now, as one would expect from a book penned by Christensen and a book that is organized around a comparison of BYU-Idaho and Harvard University. (Full disclosure--Westminster College is mentioned in several sidebars; I was part of the Westminster group who made suggestions about those sidebars.) Christensen and Eyring's recent Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed, "How to Save the Traditional University, from the Inside Out" has elicited 62 written comments as of 31 July, and several webinars devoted to the book and its argument are pending.
Their argument--that in order to innovate and succeed, colleges and universities need to do more with technology, reduce costs to students, and focus themselves in order to provide to students what they desire while giving society what it needs, is unexceptional. In fact, it happens all the time, as colleges and universities make decisions about starting new programs, discontinuing old ones, and recruiting students who will succeed on their campuses. (And, it should be noted, it is small, focused institutions that, if they don't find a market, are more likely to die.) I would suggest that the authors' central trope, that Harvard's DNA has been grafted into nearly all of American higher ed causing a sort of arms race that prices students out of the market and fails to deliver good learning, is a bit of a stretch. It may be the case that Research I universities, and top-tier (and top-tier wannabe) liberal arts colleges have adopted Harvard-like mission and faculty roles, but the vast majority of public and private universities have not.
But setting this aside, the real question is this--How innovative is "The Innovative University"? At least in their op-ed piece, Christensen and Eyring look towards a future where more specialized institutions (ones that have focused their offerings and their student profile) produce knowledge that meets the needs of their learners, using technology in discovery, dissemination, and learning. (For a great example of this sort of school, plus one that really innovates in its focus on learning, take a look at Roseman University of Health Sciences.) But presumably, students would still take classes, work towards degrees, and engage with the institution over a brief but focused period of time. That is, college education would still look largely the same to students once they matriculate. The main difference would be in the options available to students, and the role of cost and specialization in helping students choose those options.
Such an approach, for all of its virtues, fails to respond to some of the major issues facing education in the US. It does not, for example, do anything to ensure that college-going students are prepared to go to college. It does little to reach the millions of adults who need more education but cannot enroll in college to get it. It doesn't put the interests and passions of students at the center of the learning experience. It assumes that much knowledge exists largely in universities. And it maintains (or perhaps exacerbates) the assumption that learning and knowledge exist in disciplinary boxes, rather than being integrated with each other.
One might imagine an entirely different model of education--call it the Education Maintenance Organization (EMO). An EMO would look like an HMO. Its job would be to provide regular check-ups on the learning and academic growth of young people and adults. EMOs would be made up of generalists--educators who could diagnose needs and provide guidance on behavior. They would develop relationships with their clients. They could prescribe--a focused set of sessions on math for the 10-year old, learning experiences that would develop competency in history for the college-age student, job re-training for adults wanting to shift careers-- and they could provide treatment. Costs would be paid like health insurance--on an on-going basis throughout the lifetime of their members. The goal would be well-being--ongoing learning that serves the needs of individuals, and y so doing, of the broader community as well.
For some an EMO would sit on top of a traditional education--filling gaps, helping parents raise student achievement, providing focus during the summer, helping relate learning to student's passions. For others it might replace some aspects of formal education. But EMOs, whatever their role, would look little like colleges and universities.
I am not suggesting that colleges and universities should disappear. In fact, I think that the reason so few of them are disappearing is that, by and large, they do meet the needs and desires of their students. But if it is innovation we are looking for--not just in content but in structure, role, and location in society, it will take more than focus to get us there.