Disrupting the Disruption
evolving education models in the developing world
The conference theme, “Disruptive Education: Models from the Developing World,” was timely: By now, “disrupt” seems to be the watchword for anyone invested in the future of education (or any other industry, it seems). Its ubiquity stems from “disruptive innovation,” a key concept of Harvard’s Clayton Christiansen. In a 2014 article, “Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution,” Christiansen and Michelle Weise visualize the future of higher education – and see traditional brick-and-mortar institutions in the shadow of a veritable tsunami of online, competency-based education models. In response, many institutions of higher education have sought to maneuver their way ahead of technological shifts – such as Massive Open Online Courses.
The terminology of disruption is pervasive, but not everyone is sold on the theory. “The New Yorker’s” Jill Lepore points out that Christiansen’s 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” has created a particularly breathless approach to business: You are either disrupting, being disrupted, or about to – whether you know it or not. She calls out the theory’s shaky grounding as a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” More recently, two professors from MIT’s Sloan School of Management (incidentally, one of the GBSN conference’s co-sponsors) wrote an article asking “How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?”
What is undeniable is that education is changing significantly. Management education, as trade-based training delivered in close relationship with industry, is spared some of the institutional pressures to prove its worth that afflict humanities programs, but it too faces challenges.
As home to the second fastest-growing economy in the world, the Philippines was a fitting place to share “models from the developing world.” And while the conference was not without Global North paradigms, this subtitle guided discussions. GBSN’s member schools – united in their focus on creating inclusive growth within emerging markets – already tend to proactively learn from what is happening in the places where economic growth is creating new opportunities. This ethos served to subtly shift the conversation about disruption away from imminent threat and toward opportunities for growth. What are some of these opportunities “disrupting’ education”? From a full three days, here are but a few:
1. “New” skillsets. Big Data is disrupting all industries, including education. How do schools prepare students for industry’s demand for timely analytics skills? Mariels Winhoffer, vice president of global business partners at IBM Asia Pacific, noted that the ability to utilize and translate available tools is currently a huge skills gap. Concurrent with technical demand is demand for graduates who appreciate “the business of culture and the culture of business,” as put by Ravi Kumar, dean of Nanyang Business School (Singapore). How do schools provide a layer of cultural intelligence on top of technical skills? From my perspective, this gets at a larger dynamic throughout the conference: Despite the rise of competency-based education – one that equips future business leaders to grapple with and master hard skills, such as analytics – there is movement toward developing “soft skills” through experiential learning. Both signal a departure from relying solely on what was once the B-school bread-and-butter, the case method.
2. Resource-sharing for the SDGs. GBSN 2015 was the site of the Business Schools for Impact (BSI)’s Asia pilot workshop. BSI is “a platform for business schools worldwide to develop and share teaching materials, experience and ideas.” BSI calls for partnership schools to contribute resources, such as cases for teaching and internship opportunities, as a way developed and developing countries can team up to support global education, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “The biggest disrupter in business education in the next 30 years is the SDGs,” asserted Christiane Stepanek of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the project’s head. Is it? This will be something to watch.
3. Different models for different social locations. In another panel discussion, Ranjan Banerjee, dean of the S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research (India), presented his school’s attempt to turn out socially sensitive MBAs through an experiential learning program in which they mentor slum children and serve internships in under-resourced rural NGOs. Sure, Banerjee argued, structured, short-term, job-focused internships with corporations land grads jobs; but are they really most compatible for long-term growth? (In other words: What is management education “for”? The next job? Or for a full career?) The school’s early statistical evidence suggests that its approach is developing graduates who are more employable and effective in the long run.
The model is promising but reflects a limited social location – that of the relatively well-off whose backgrounds have allowed them to go for an MBA but have not exposed them to slum realities. Approaching the dilemma – how to make quality education accessible to the poorest – were panelists Christopher and Victoria Bernido, from the Central Visayan Institute Foundation (CVIF), a Filipino organization. By focusing on learner disposition and process efficiency, rather than instructor creds or materials, CVIF offers a model that costs less without lowering educational standards. Similarly, Chito Salazar, of the PHINMA Education model, attempts to achieve the same at the college level through a “bare bones, no frills, brass knuckles” approach that helps students achieve professional qualifications at a reasonable cost for publicly educated youth.
4. The great debate: Do the bricks and mortar matter? This question – or the future tense of it, rather – has been hanging in the air recently. Participants submitted and live-voted their own questions on this topic, and panelists argued according to assigned positions, rather than necessarily personally held ones. The result was a lighthearted back-and-forth. At the end, most stood by their pre-poll “yes – they do matter.” A blended learning approach to management education seems like the answer, for now.
GBSN 2015 concluded with a day-trip to Enchanted Farm, a demonstration plot for the Filipino community development foundation Gawad Kalinga (GK) and its comprehensive vision for poverty alleviation. The farm is home to GK’s Center for Social Innovation, a business ecosystem developer that aims to build a culture of social entrepreneurship. It is run by interns who come from all over the world to help identify the talents of the local poor and mentor them (a requirement at GK) while also cutting their entrepreneurial teeth.
Administrators and professors from GBSN schools ended the conference chatting with interns. GK founder Tony Meloto, echoing Ranjan Banerjee, called on the educators to push their students outside of their comfort zones. This is the kind of education, he said, that makes global citizens. Several interns spoke of looking for a different kind of training than they had received in their home institutions. The difference-maker, for them, was not access to new technological resources, but learning on the ground, with people, troubleshooting their own “living” cases.
GK’s model of student training disrupts the concept of disruption itself. It doesn’t squeeze out, displace, or engulf market share amidst scarcity; rather, it creates and distributes opportunities, upending the frenetic mentality of “disrupt or be disrupted.” What appears to be truly disruptive is a model in which students are forced to go beyond “business as usual” and build models where everyone can play a role in creating a more inclusive economy.
Nathan Rauh-Bieri is program coordinator of education at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.