Innovation in Higher Education: The Importance of Organizational Fit

By Keith Hapson

The pace at which new ideas, initiatives and technologies are surfacing in higher education continues to quicken. Universities, vendors, philanthropists and non-profit organisations are responding aggressively to the growing pressure to improve student outcomes, reduce costs, and expand our capacity to serve under-represented student populations.

However, a remarkable number of these efforts will fail to take hold. Some will run out of money. Others simply won’t work. But many — despite the benefits they may offer —  will fail because they don’t “fit”. That is, the innovation isn’t aligned with the unique organizational structure, processes, reward systems and culture of our colleges and universities.

Consider the LMS and MOOCs, two influential innovations from the world of edtech.

Like a Glove: The LMS

A quick scan of the original business plans prepared LMS companies will uncover a passage that reads something like this: “Our LMS . . . enables individual educators to create and deliver online education with limited technical expertise and minimal technical assistance”. The technology allows individual educators to continue to create and manage their own courses despite the introduction of “high-tech” (as it was called then) into the teaching and learning process.

The rapid (and now almost universal adoption) of the LMS in higher education was possible precisely because it fit into the existing organizational processes, roles, and hierarchy. It made it relatively simple for institutions to “put their courses online” without disrupting the existing institutional model. Yes, most institutions created service departments to provide technical and instructional design support, but these departments were designed to get the instructor working independently as soon as possible.


On the other hand . . .

After a honeymoon of roughly 18 months, during which MOOCs were interpreted as either the end of higher ed as we know it or its saviour, this particular innovation began slowly backing away from higher education. Despite its historical roots in higher education, it’s now in search of potentially more forgiving venues, such as the retail and corporate training market.

At least two obstacles stand in the way of MOOCs easily integrating into higher education: the economics of credentials and conventional understanding of the proper role and responsibilities for faculty.


Until alternative forms of credentialing, such as badges, gain greater acceptance, the value of MOOCs is highly contingent on their being accepted for formal credit at colleges and universities. The path to credit for MOOCs is anything but straightforward — here are a few reasons why.

Were MOOCs widely accepted for credit, the institutions offering MOOCs (at this time, primarily selective institutions) would be able to increase revenue, reach new learners, and extend the reach of the institution’s brand. In any other market, this would be ideal and straightforward. But extending access to an elite university credit in this way could, first of all, weaken the institution’s hard-won exclusivity — a core source of value upon which so much of its status is tied.


At the same time, it’s unlikely that only a small subset of institutions would offer MOOCs, once widely accepted for credit. Other less prestigious institutions — motivated by tightening budgets and in pursuit of new revenue streams — would quickly follow suit. They’d have no choice, given the very real possibility that their students could now enrol in cheaper courses from more prestigious institutions.

So, in time, the market for MOOCs would be flush with suppliers. The financial benefit to any institution, then, would require the total size of the market to grow as quickly as supply. Early indications suggest that almost all of the growth would be from students in developing nations.


Competition in an open MOOC market may also force selective institutions to compete for learners on the basis of criteria for which they are not well-suited.

US higher education is diverse and stratified. Institutions at the top of the heap are typically defined by high-levels of research productivity, award-winning faculty, high tuition (“sticker prices”), and tough admissions standards. These characteristics, though, don’t necessarily translate into a capacity to produce and deliver high quality online learning. Indeed, in a robust market of MOOCs, the advantage will — all things being equal — go to those institutions that have long invested in online learning and that, more generally, see teaching and learning as core to their mission.

The current advantages enjoyed by elite institutions would be reduced in a competitive MOOC market. Once pulled out of its typical context, and its wares placed side-by-side with competing courses, a new criteria emerges. Here, institutions are forced to compete on the basis of instructional quality, relevance, production value, ease of use, and other digital-borne criteria.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that elite institutions could use their relatively strong financial status to outspend the competition, but that’s not the basis of a competitive advantage. If this is a true marketplace, these additional costs will eventually need to be recovered.


The issue of “fit” is also shaped by our common notions of what constitutes the proper role and responsibilities of faculty.

While much has been made of the poor academic results of the Udacity pilot at San Jose State University, what’s less often discussed is the concerns among SJSU faculty about the effects of MOOCs on their vulnerability in the labour market. In a letter penned a letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard prof who taught the MOOC, the faculty wrote: “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” Putting a slightly different spin on it, Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD turned down an offer to participate in a MOOC, describing the project as a form of “academic colonialism” — whereby the powerful dominate the less prestigious faculty, weaker schools. Petriglieri put it this way: “It is far more similar to colonialism, that is, disruption brought about by ‘the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker people or areas’ and simultaneously increasing its cultural reach and control of resources.”

Theoretically, MOOCs could work around these organizational challenges. They could, for example, break the course into smaller units of instruction that could then be plugged into courses at other institutions, according to the needs and preferences of local faculty. Similarly, they could remove overt references to the faculty and institutions from which the course originated — “white-label” their work, in effect. But then this would remove what makes MOOCs, well, MOOCs. Affiliation with elite professors and universities (e.g. Michael Sandel at Harvard) was what made MOOCs newsworthy in the first place — as did the decision to package this intellectual property in the form of course. Both decisions support an equivalence between the MOOC and the “real” course offered at the source institution. I seriously doubt that MOOCs would have been discussed in the pages of the New York Times and in such glowing terms, had they come to us from the likes of Pocatello Community College — fair or not.


The difficulty of creating education tools, programs and services that fit well in higher education has many origins. Most obviously and commonly, the culprit is a lack of knowledge of the unique characteristics of this institutional, but even professionals that work within higher education can get it wrong.

I’ve become acutely aware of the importance of understanding organizational fit since joining Acrobatiq. The company is a by-product of a long-term research and development project of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Unlike most organizations I’ve worked with over the years, the team at Acrobatiq comes from higher ed; they have decades of collective history working in higher education as faculty and administration. Indeed, some continue to work in universities. Higher ed is home turf and we are able to draw on our understanding of how higher education actually operates, what it needs to achieve its objectives, and what truly motivates the professionals that work in these institutions.

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