Big Bang Disruption

What a spring it has been! Between teaching intro to Digital Humanities and participating in energizing committee work, I’ve only begun processing some of my recreational reading.

One Saturday morning in Febuary, I spent the better part of the morning alone in my office at Hampshire going through my pile of periodicals, which included one of my favorites, the Harvard Business Review.That might seem strange coming from a librarian, but HBR has given me a lot over the years, knowledge that I leverage everyday. This month’s issue included an exceptional article about big-bang disruptions. Talking about disruption in the context of higher education almost feels like aphorism, but thinking through the implications of ‘disruptions’ like MOOCs and digital humanities are not to be ignored at the community college, the research university, nor the liberal arts college. The authors define ‘big-bang disrupters’:

“But the strategic model of disruptive model of disruptive innovation we’ve all become comfortable with has a bling spot. It assumes that disrupters start with a lower-priced, inferior alternative that chips away at the least profitable segments, giving an incumbent business time to start a skunkworks and developed its own next generation products…That kind of innovation changes the rules. We’re accustomed to seeing mature products wiped out by new technologies and to ever-shorter product life cycles. But now entire product lines-whole markets-are being created or distorted overnight…We call these game changers “big-bang disrupters.” They don’t create dilemmas for innovators, they trigger disasters.”*

What happens in business is not necessarily what does or should happen in higher education, but I will draw a parallel to higher education. While I don’t think that big-bang disruptors (DH, MOOCs) in the context of higher education will necessarily trigger disaster, I do think they are harbingers of creative destruction. DH or DLA and MOOCs will radically change old paradigms about what students learn in college, where they learn it, and how they learn it. With governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Texas accelerating development of MOOCs while simultaneously cutting spending for higher education across the board, Pannapacker’s call for liberal arts colleges to embrace the digital liberal arts – and the White House’s call to for accountability for colleges and universities higher education as we know – is about to change broadly. Big-bang disruption is here. But how do we respond to these changes? How do we continue to create spaces where active learning can happen, where we not only focus on what students are going to be doing for the first two years of their lives post-graduation and then arm them with the tools that they can lean on for the rest of their lives?

I am skeptical about many of the new trends and developments in higher education. Personally, I don’t view MOOCs as cost saving saviors for the problems facing higher education. But I do think they might well have a place in a flipped classroom, continuing education, or a way for people who are not in school to try their hand or move towards transitioning back into a degree program. I don’t think Digital Humanities or Digital Liberal Arts will make every graduate the perfect candidate for next-generation jobs. I do think Digital Humanities and/or Digital Liberal Arts can make for interactive classrooms and give students an opportunity to build, to think about how to imagine a tool or new framework for studying images. There is no panacea, no easy fix, no fast reform. The transition from the higher education of yore and today into the higher education of tomorrow and the future will not be easy and not without casualties or collateral damage. But changes need to be made if there’s going to be a higher education landscape in the future. Rather than react defensively to these big-bang disruptions, I’d like to shift my practice to work within the new landscape, to find new ways to compromise, innovate, and ensure that higher education remains an exciting realmin which to practice librarianship.