Disruptive Innovation in an Academic Library: One View (Part 2)

Clayton Christiansen's impressive work on disruptive innovation (see previous post) arises from his examination of innovative developments in concrete products such as transistors, computer chips, and automobiles.  His analysis has both an intellectual plausibility and an on-ground sense of touch.  

One of the main points (to paraphrase crudely) is that the new innovation frequently is not (in fact) as good as the old, expensive, hard-to-get product, but for the innovation's users it's good enough.  

Example: the incursion of foreign automobiles into the USA market in the 1970s, in particular German and Japanese cars.  They had a reputation as not being as reliable as your grandfather's Oldsmobile or Buick (and maybe they weren't).  I owned a 1967 Volkswagon bug, and it wasn't totally reliable.  I later owned two successive Ford Pintos, the cars that exploded on rear-end impact (faulty gas tank).  They were terrible, and I've never been persuaded to own another Ford.  So while German and Japanese cars were regarded as less reliable (imagine that!), in fact the Big Three automakers were producing glitzy junk. No wonder younger drivers abandoned them in droves.

In that case, not only was the "new" product "good enough," the former product had deteriorated.  Earlier, the first transistor radios were only "good enough" (tinny sound), but they were a huge, portable improvement on the old tubes.  These products are really clear, and consumer-oriented, although Christiansen's analysis also holds ground very well in the case of computer chips, which are secondarily consumer-oriented.

So what do academic libraries produce?  –much less clear than radios and automobiles.

The old language about "the academic library supports the students and faculty" is insufficient. (See Scott Bennett's article.) The support role has been supplemented (if not replaced) by Google and other traffikers in information.  That is the true innovative disruption in the academic library –Google (Amazon, etc.) is not "as good as" but is "good enough," and the exchange is not primarily financial (dollars for support) as much as time and effort.  For many using Google (etc.) is good enough: not so much work, easy to use, and ubiquitous.  Just think about the question, "why is it so much easier to buy a book than to borrow a book?"

If the old support, service-oriented language is insufficient, what's left for academic libraries?

Real (or deep) learning happens in communities.  In a community, they internalize the implicit practices of a discipline that matter most.  That's why they are called disciplines, not just subject matter –learning puts the schaft (schaffen=create) in the Wissenschaft (wissen=to know) in German, the source of the model of the modern Ph.D. research university.

But the research university "DNA" is just what Christiansen claims innovative organizations such as BYU Idaho disruptive.  There are several levels to his claim. Consider that this organization is called BYU (Brigham Young University) Idaho for a reason –it's basically oriented to the "mother ship" BYU in Provo, Utah.  All of BYU receives a huge tuition subsidy for all LDS students who are "temple worthy" (an LDS status indicating good standing: in 2011-2012 $4,560 vs $9,120 for non-LDS).  Who teaches at BYU-Idaho?  It doesn't produce it's own faculty, but depends on other organizations (such as BYU Provo).  While traditional faculty may face disruptive innovation in time, some alternative method of demonstrating certified expertise then will have to be found –or consider that impact on medical or engineering educations.

Whether or not every college has the "DNA" of "Harvard" (roughly equals the Ph.D.-granting Carnegie Class One research university) –deep learning still occurs in communities of practice.  John Seely Brown (.pdf) writes:

Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away.  Insiders know more.  By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the "standard" answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.

Notice Brown's verb inhabit. I'm sure that such a community can be inhabited via distance education modalities, but it takes a lot of work.

Libraries and librarians come to understand how people learn as self-directed, internalizing learners –the library is a learning enterprise without the structure of the direct learning environment (classroom or course management space).  Students are intentional learners, not just users whose use of resources the librarians facilitate.

The disruptive innovation presented by all kinds of information technology, and finally by Google, Amazon, iTunesU, MOOCs, and their kindred –this disruption forces the clarification of what an academic library produces: an environment where students take responsibility for their own learning.  Librarians enact the institutional mission of the university in the context of that environment.  

An academic library enacts a community of practice so that learners move beyond "standard answers" to understand the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics of their disciplines, and why they matter.   Libraries are one of the places where disciplinary outsiders can become knowledgable, practicing insiders.  The library enacts the schaft in the Wissenschaft.


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