Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The problem with innovation

Alright, you're probably tired of the topic of innovation by now, and that's fine. But since I've been writing about the topic so much lately, I thought it was appropriate to follow up with my latest thoughts. I thought it was especially pertinent today since I came across this post from Bill Conerly's Businomics blog, which brought together two of my favorite topics--innovation and education.
In the medieval university, books were scarce and expensive, far too scarce to expect every student to buy a half dozen textbooks. So professors lectured. It was a cost-effective way to transmit information.
Today, most professors still lecture. Not just in seminars covering rare information, but in basic courses taught in every college in the world: introduction to economics, first year chemistry, Calculus I, etc. Think about that. There are books covering everything said in the lectures. There are videos of great professors lecturing on the common topics. It's a colossal waste of time for every professor to lecture.
Most anything can be learned by a dedicated person studying on his own. However, most of us do better with some structure, and efficiency calls for a guide to the material and a person to answer questions when we get stuck. That should be the role of the modern professor. Design the body of material to be studied for a particular course. Recommend reading, videos, exercises, problems and projects that will help students. Be available to help students who get stuck. Ask stimulating questions. Promote discussion. Evaluate student performance, and advise on how much progress is being made. The teacher becomes a consultant...
It's time for education to step out of the medieval era.
Well said, Dr. Conerly.

He's right, of course. The problem with innovation isn't that not enough people are creating and innovating (though sometimes, that is the case)--rather, it's that we all are too slow to change our habits and adopt the new technologies that are available to us.

In the world of education--especially since the advent of the internet--basic knowledge (and even some fairly complex concepts) has never been more accessible to more people. Sites like Academic Earth and the Khan Academy have democratized education in a way that can and should be transformational for our society, and yet relatively few people have any clue that they even exist (I myself only learned of their existence a couple weeks ago).

Ultimately, people don't like change, they fear what is different, and they are devastatingly slow to accept new technologies and actually change the rhythm of their lives. Frankly, we like the current system of education and the status markers that it affords (nothing screams legitimacy quite like a degree from a highly-regarded school). Break that down, and we no longer have any reliable way of drawing distinctions between people, no smoking gun on their resumes that ensures us that they are what they claim to be. We view the democratization of education as dangerous not so much because of the uncertainty of how and what we will learn, but more because of the auxiliary systems that it threatens to destroy.

That's a hard hurdle to overcome, and it's certainly not unique to the world of education. I think that a fair analogy exists in the world of business, where despite the options for telecommuting and online meetings that services like Skype and GoToMeeting afford, we continue to spend hours commuting (and companies spend millions on commercial rent) so that we can keep on slaving away in offices with coworkers who we don't honestly like. We do this despite the fact that very few of us actually need to be in an office surrounded by our coworkers--for most companies in most industries, there's little that we gain from daily colocation, except maybe for a little bit of office camaraderie that might make us more productive. But that's an expensive trade to make, both for our companies and for ourselves.

The task, then, for the innovators and for all of us, is to figure out ways to make change less threatening. I've already embraced the freedom that the virtual corporation affords (I've worked in three different states and two different countries already this year), but I'll readily admit to being a bit of a Tory when it comes to the existing system of education--maybe that's just a result of self-preservation, since the abolishment of current institutions would be devastating to the value of my Harvard degree, but I digress.

The point is, if we're going to complain about the way things are (as so many of us like to do), we need to be ready--and I mean really ready--to drop our existing assumptions and habits when a new option comes along. Otherwise, we forfeit our right to complain about the status quo--our stubborn conservatism makes us complicit. If we want real innovation, we need to reward it by changing ourselves at the same rate that we change our technologies.


No comments:

Post a Comment