Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 1. The accreditation agencies?

July 19, 2018 Tony Bates

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is considered a successful innovation, according to the Christensen Institute

Horn, M. and Dunagan, A. (2018) Innovation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education San Francisco CA: The Christensen Institute

Revisiting an old question

A couple of things recently have led me to reflect once again on this question. There are some obvious reasons for a lack of innovation in teaching in higher education, such as:

  • lack of pedagogical training for post-secondary instructors,
  • the privileging of research over teaching,
  • lack of rewards for good teaching (or lack of punishment for poor teaching)
  • faculty fear of technology,

but there are other, perhaps more subtle, factors that make innovation and change so damned difficult in universities and colleges.

One factor is suggested in the report from the Christensen Institute, which puts the blame squarely on accreditation agencies. I will look at this claim in this post.

However, responses to my recent post on learning management systems, where I suggested that the time has come to move on to other tools for online learning, also suggest other reasons why even online learning is becoming increasingly resistant to change. I will examine this issue – which I think is much more significant – in my next post.

The ‘dead hand’ of accreditation agencies

The more insidious failure of accreditation is the stifling effect it has on innovation at existing institutions.

This is the conclusion from a report from the Christensen Institute (yes, that Christensen, the disruptive one) based on four case studies (yes, just four).

It looked at attempts by the following four institutions in setting up an online operation separate from the main, campus-based institution’s teaching model:

  • Bellevue University’s (Nebraska) Flexxive Program
  • Tiffin University’s (Ohio) Ivy Bridge Program
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • General Assembly’s coding boot camps

The first two innovations failed; the second two succeeded. The difference, according to the report, was the role of the respective accrediting agencies.

The authors argue:

Innovations aimed at redefining a college or university’s value proposition must be insulated from its existing business model or else it will conform to the inputs of the existing business model rather than create a new one….Creating an autonomous unit is critical for a college to launch an innovation aimed at dramatically transforming its value proposition.

Depending on the nature of the innovation, a college or university must work closely with its accreditor to ensure that the new practice is consistent with the accreditor’s quality standards. As a result, accreditation plays a major role in the innovation process for most colleges and universities.

Accreditation as it currently stands is inconsistent, both between accreditors, and between the same accreditor at different points in time. Standards of accreditation vary between accreditors, but their interpretation varies to a larger degree—even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution. This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks for many schools with limited resources that are considering whether to bring innovative programs forward. ….. Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography—a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor— as well as finances.

… a process that is so subject to individual interpretation and has a track record of inconsistently applying rules and standards cannot be a foundation for regulation supportive of innovation. As countless scholars have shown, investment in innovation does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

Is it true?

This is a pretty damning condemnation of American accreditation agencies, and I suggest needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I myself have argued that professional accreditation agencies, such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario, certainly stifle innovation when they refuse to accept any qualifications taken through distance education. But university and college accreditation?

There are several reasons why I think the Christensen Institute’s conclusions are too strong:

  • online learning has been expanding rapidly in the USA over the last 10 years, where at least one in three students are taking an online course, a rate of growth much faster than campus-based enrolments, yet the accreditation agencies have done little to prevent this fairly major innovation in teaching; 
  • I challenge the assumption – which is at the core of the Christensen philosophy – that innovation can take place only if it is insulated from an organization’s existing business model. Sure, by definition this may be true of disruptive innovation in business, but nevertheless there has been considerable innovation in terms of introducing online and more recently blended learning in higher education, without disrupting the current business model of universities and colleges;
  • the university accreditation process in the USA is unique, lacks rationality generally in terms of its relationship between government, geography, and institutional governance, and is indeed often inconsistent and contradictory, not only with regard to innovation but often with regard to traditional programs. But yes, it has slowed down – but not prevented – innovation through online learning.

In other words, while no doubt US higher education accreditation agencies may inhibit innovation to some extent, especially with regard to radically new institutions (but perhaps based on a reasonable assessment of possible risk to fee-paying students), this report is too much like a theory trying to find evidence to support it, rather than a systematic study of what not only inhibits but also what enables innovation in higher education. The barriers to innovation in higher education are more complex than just being the fault of the nasty accreditation agencies. More on this in the next post.

Previous Article
Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems
Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

  In my first post in this series, I looked at the role of accreditation agencies in blocking innovation. I...

Next Article
Is Blackboard dying? The latest instalment in LMS wars.
Is Blackboard dying? The latest instalment in LMS wars.

Feldstein, M. (2018) Canvas Surpasses Blackboard Learn in US Market Share, eLiterate, July 8 Kroner, G. (20...