Reimagining Education: Innovation at the Edge

How innovation at the edges will change the shape of education


I learned early that things move much faster at the edges. The playground roundabout was the equipment of choice and all the kids ran for the edge — so much more exciting, even if more nausea-inducing than the genteel pace of the centre. The edge is where you could get the roundabout really flying, and the more kids on the edges, the faster it went.

So too it seems that the speed of innovation and change is accelerated around the edges of industry and higher education is no different. In this digital age, if traditional providers fail to meet market demands new players at the edges will enter, disrupt — and thrive.

While currently protected by accreditation and regulators, long-established providers cannot afford to ignore the changes already taking place around traditional industry boundaries.

Education has always been the way we have created, shared and used new knowledge to improve society and generate economic value. However the nature of work is changing rapidly and the existing higher education sector cannot keep pace with the number of people who will need up-skilling and re-skilling over the next decade. UNESCO predicts a shortage of almost 100 million higher education seats by 2025. Meanwhile, our current education system was designed for a standardised, industrial age, yet today’s learner needs a ‘one size fits one’ model that keeps pace with their ongoing learning and work needs. So how can the current sector respond to ‘new models that are coming — ready or not’?

Innovation at the edge — where risk and opportunity thrive

Risk and opportunity live at system edges — this is where innovation occurs and where alternative ways of doing things can thrive. Experimentation at the edges of the traditional education sector within the past 10 years has brought us MOOC’s, boot-camp models, learn now — pay later education, nanodegrees and alternative credentialing.

According to theories of disruption, first attempts at any new innovation often seem harmless to the existing system, and in the education sector we have observed early MOOCs failing to support high completion rates, boot-camps struggling to extend their reach beyond narrow discipline fields and alternative credentialing limited to continuing education points.

However things are changing at the edges, fast. These models continue to experiment, test, explore and transform into viable solutions and in doing so are nudging closer to the core. Bootcamp models continue to grow in popularity and are delivering results, with some touting 90%-plus graduate job placement rates. MOOC providers are rapidly developing viable business models and alternative credentials are increasingly recognised by employers.

Are we ready for ‘shape change’?

By 2020, a third of the skills required to perform today’s jobs will be completely new. ‘Work-ready’ skills such as problem solving, creativity, intercultural skills and teamwork are already highly valued and transferable.

Everyone appreciates that the existing education industry will not be able to deliver the outcomes that will be needed at the scale and speed that is coming. At the same time, traditional higher education providers will not enjoy the same level of government funding in the future so learner contributions will have to increase. With this, expectations will also rise.

New players may look nothing like the traditional education framework of the past. Technology companies are already using their platforms and user experience capabilities to capture millions of learners around the world. now offers thousands of courses through LinkedIn Learning. The professional social platform acquired Lynda for $1.5billion in 2015 — but that’s just a drop in the edutech investment ocean, which is forecast to reach $252billion by 2020. Google’s Digital Garage is offering digital skills courses and credentials, partnering with employers and industries who recognise the qualifications and these models are becoming more common.

Missed the memo? Shape change is already here.

Governments are already taking notice of these changes, from calls for significant changes to regulatory controls that allow for other models, to the potential for funding support.

Similarly, we are seeing lots of activity from traditional providers who are partnering, investing, acquiring and embedding new capabilities into their existing operations. Universities are already partnering with boot-camp providers to deliver the ‘best of both worlds’ to students, such as the relationship between four US universities and Revature, as well as launching their own boot-camp models. Most universities have some sort of MOOC offering, either stand alone or through a MOOC provider. Some are embedding these offerings into their traditional courses and giving credits for completion. So some parts of the sector seem to be already adapting and morphing to integrate and make room for alternative providers.

We will all have to adapt to a new industry shape at some point — so whether you’re innovating at the edges or a core provider, it’s time to pay attention to these trends. This is our chance to seize a unique opportunity: expand our frameworks, challenge our assumptions — and meet the lifelong needs of an ever-expanding number of learners.