Self disruption in the university

Recently, Stephen Elop, tech industry giant and distinguished engineering executive in residence at McMaster University, articulated the important concept of self-disruption for businesses during a lecture that he delivered to our students.

Evoking his career, Stephen discussed how industries must continually reinvent themselves to survive and thrive through “self-disruptive innovation”. The principle: Recognize your core assets and disrupt your business by innovating around them.

Afterward, we discussed the implication of self-disruption for universities, where our core assets are educational programs, many with decades-long histories. It is increasingly clear that they should be disrupted for our students to become future-ready in a rapidly changing world.

The synergy between academia and business is a regular topic of discussion between Faizel Lakhani, CEO of Guavas and serial entrepreneur, and me. Recently, he sent me a link to an article discussing  what business leaders can learn from academic leaders. It reminded me that academic leadership “requires resilient and adaptive leadership”, prompting me to again reflect upon how universities engage in self-disruption.

Today, the Internet connects and yet it distances us. Automation relieves us from the tedium of repetitive actions while it simultaneously deprives many of jobs. More people are now able to access reliable energy but are losing access to clean air and water as a consequence.

To ensure that their futures are just and more equitable, our students must learn to address and solve increasingly complex problems such as these, but only after understanding that the solutions that they will develop will apply to systems that can be destabilized.  

The technology behind social media has become the archetypal example of a solution that has destabilized political democracy.

While social media has enhanced the progress of democratic movements around the world, its opaque technologies and business models have also been used to obstruct democracy. It has become an essential tool of political campaigning, but we have learned how social media is used to propagate lies and manipulate people.

Clearly, we must imbue our students with the critical thinking that enables them to build robust solutions that do not readily destabilize movement towards a just and equitable society. This requires self-disruption of both curricula and the ways through which students are taught.

Whereas a newly formulated disruption often goes unnoticed, enough early adopters can facilitate its rapid growth and widespread impact. Thereafter, as the disruption matures, once its detrimental impacts are known, they can be mediated by regulations and political actions. Massive change can result from the accumulation of many sequential disruptions.

Traditional “chalk and talk” monologues by a “sage on the stage” are not always relevant to teaching the impacts of technological and business disruptions on our society. Here, due to the Microsoft-enabled innovation, PowerPoint, many lectures have become more talk and less chalk, decreasing the time available to students to fully absorb the material that is presented in class.

An unfortunate consequence of the more rapid lecture delivery enabled through computer presentations is that educators have learned that they can increase the content that they provide to students. While we multitask more effectively than ever before, our cognition remains the same. Hence the question, is more content really more learning or does its increase lower understanding?

To address complex real-world issues related to, for example, climate change, cyberfinance and the global movement of capital, opioids, inequality, and increasing political opacity, this way of teaching is inadequate.

For one, it is starkly dissimilar to the Socratic or Confucian dialogue which, in contrast to the more modern chalk talk monologue, prompted mentors and students to synergistically ask and answer questions centuries ago. That method of dialogue is the basis upon which teaching and learning were developed across civilizations for centuries, with the goal of individual self-improvement in the case of Socrates or, as in the case of Confuscious, social improvement.

Now to the present. The methods of learning should be taken from back in time and then brought into the future, replacing the chalk talk with older forms of self-directed and group learning that is updated for a contemporary setting.

Rather than have students learn in large impersonal amphitheaters befitting a more industrial assembly line model of education, student teams should be provided with real-world problems to solve, where they work together in social environments that mimic a modern studiolike team-based workplace.

In these environments, students more readily learn how to challenge their assumptions, debate with each other with mutual respect, establish a common understanding of the problem at hand, develop empathy with those for whom the solutions are carefully crafted, and consider ways by which unintended harm can be prevented.

Imagine Socrates and Confucius teaching in the same classroom.

Not all problems are immediately tractable. Even the smartest among us pursue red herrings. Given a curriculum based on solving real-world problems, it is inevitable that some, perhaps even most, student teams will fail to develop appropriate solutions immediately, but this is okay.

If students do fail, the constraints of time and the design of the curriculum can be used to encourage them to experiment and fail fast so that they are able to pivot towards other more productive solution paths. 

Prior to our students learning how to pivot, we, McMaster Engineering educators, have recognized that we must ourselves first pivot the pedagogies that we employ, as well as the curricula that we offer. Therefore, collating these required pivots, we are undertaking a massive curricular redesign, appropriately named The Pivot.

For technological, business and societal solutions to be relevant, empathy is paramount. Doug Barber, a businessman and distinguished visiting professor at McMaster Engineering, has often related how important it is to rethink education. Doug believes that students are indoctrinated with the idea that problems can only be solved through logic and reason while, often, the key to success is communication and business acumen.

The curricular redesign through The Pivot has four essential elements. We promote students’ experiential learning so that they understand the nature of grand challenges, enhance their creative problem solving through design thinking, integrate a research mindset as they learn through the curriculum, and promote innovation so that they are able to readily translate their solutions into commercially and socially relevant forms to beneifit the real world. 

Students will work on problems of increasing complexity through The Pivot, where our experience at McMaster shows how students take open-ended problems to produce solutions that are well thought out, innovative and inspiring. To prepare our students for their changing and uncertain futures, our focus is on their learning and not on specific projects or problems that they are asked to tackle.

Back to the notion of self-disruption that Stephen explained for us. Everyone, whether in business, education, or policy and governance, should take heed.

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