What Educational Disruption Means for Your Company

What Educational Disruption Means for Your Company

05.14.13Ron Ashkenas

The most visible part of educational disruption is the proliferation of online learning through MOOCs

With graduation season upon us, it's important to remember that as a manager you must often be a teacher too. A major part of your role is instruction – which means that you need to pay attention to the massive disruption going on in higher education and what it means for company learning.

The most visible part of educational disruption is the proliferation of online learning through MOOCs, or massive, open, online courses. These programs, sponsored by elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and Wesleyan, have enrolled thousands of students around the world in high-level courses developed by top-notch faculty. And although the dropout rate is high, the business model is uncertain, and learning outcomes are not yet clear, these MOOC's are rapidly evolving new technologies that will certainly change the higher education landscape, and dramatically increase access to learning.

The other force that is disrupting higher education is the expectations of students. One of my clients recently took a trip with her sixteen year old son to visit colleges. While my client was impressed by the schools with extensive libraries and physical facilities, her son was focused on the extent to which the institutions were enabled with wireless capability, video streaming, readily available collaboration tools, and more. This suggests that higher education is also being disrupted by the demands of digital natives. Having grown up in an online world, they won't be satisfied with traditional lecture-oriented and paper-based education, especially as K-12 schools become more digital as well.

For universities, the changing landscape will mean a fundamental rethinking of the educational experience. For example, the classroom probably will be used more to discuss and internalize content that has already been provided digitally, a concept known as flipping; students and faculty will communicate not just in person, but also through continuously available digital channels; and teachers will have access to more data about student performance and learning, giving them the ability to track progress and participation throughout both a course and a curriculum.

These same trends are likely to affect corporations and the way knowledge is transferred to employees, customers, and other partners. For example, instead of starting new hires with a traditional orientation workshop, companies might require them to complete an online preparatory course and pass a test before even meeting their new boss. The same process could be used when someone moves to a new job or a new division within a company. Digital learning tools also could be used more extensively with customers, replacing instruction manuals and help desks; while remote diagnostics and smart products, with embedded instructions (what GE calls the Industrial Internet) will replace service calls. Companies are experimenting with all of these approaches and many more – so while we don't know the exact shape of the future, we do know it will be different.

As a result, if you're in a managerial position today, it's probably time to get ready. Here are two things you can do:

First, if you're not completely comfortable with the digital world, get yourself a digital mentor – someone under the age of 25 who can teach you the language and help you understand what's possible. GE did this for all its senior people a number of years ago when the internet was just emerging, and it accelerated their learning curves tremendously.

Second, take an online course, either in your own company's virtual university if you have one, or through one of the MOOC providers such as Coursera, EdX, or Udacity. There are an astounding array of topics already available – from "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" to "Aboriginal World Views" to "Songwriting" – so pick something of interest and go through the process at your own pace – both to get exposure to a new subject and to get familiar with a new way of learning.

Disruptive transformation is always painful and challenging. But when you know it's coming, it's usually better to be a few steps ahead than a few gigabytes behind.

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.

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