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Rethinking the Rules


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Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

Although higher education is reputed to be slow to change, the rules surrounding "it can't be done" have been shifting dramatically. Many of today's "rules" would have been unthinkable a few years ago:

  • Colleges and universities are no longer the only providers of college courses. Think of StraighterLine.
  • Class size has gone from dozens to hundreds to hundreds of thousands. Think of MOOCs.
  • Credentials are being offered outside the academy. Think of badges.

The status quo is being reshaped by entrepreneurs, government, and the academy itself. New institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University, are predicated on principles of disruptive innovation. New business models, with disaggregation as their core element, are emerging. MOOCs (massive open online courses) symbolize a shift in the rules. As Phil Hill writes in this issue of EDUCAUSE Review, even the most traditional institutions are reconsidering what it means to be a college or university in the connected age: "Online education should now be considered part of any institution's strategic planning process, even if the decision is to not offer online education."

Innovation hinges on rethinking the rules. In "Business Model Innovation," Christine Flanagan quotes Clayton Christensen: "You don't change a company by giving them ideas. You change them by training them to think a different way."

One "different way" of thinking involves using the emerging field of service science as a way to provide a perspective on the forces reshaping higher education today. In their article "Ten Reasons Service Science Matters to Universities," Jim Spohrer, Dianne Fodell, and Wendy Murphy describe service science (the "science of win-win") as "the application of knowledge and resources for the benefit of others." As they explain, colleges and universities are complex, adaptive systems. These service systems "manage and provide for housing, transportation, safety, health, food, water, energy, education, and entertainment. All of these systems have a series of interactions, costs, and interdependencies. . . . Service systems require smart people, technology, and business leadership. The quality of life for students depends on the quality of their education and their experiences in college."

According to Mary Jo Bitner, Amy Ostrom, and Kevin Burkhard, the key to this service-oriented view of higher education is to "focus squarely on the student experience as a way of creating value for all stakeholders." A core tenet of viewing higher education through a service lens is that value is co-created by the consumer, meaning that value lies in the experience itself rather than in the "thing" provided. Service blueprinting can help higher education leaders "redesign, reinvent, and reimagine their educational offerings and service processes from the student's point of view."

Focusing on the student experience can also lead to the direct participation by students in business model innovation. In her article in this issue of EDUCAUSE Review, Christine Flanagan talks about putting design into the hands of students. For example, the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Student Experience Lab partnered with Utah State University to suggest ways to enhance students' engagement with the institution. Blending their experiences, broader research, and training in design, students developed a prototype that has been adopted as a model for student services. Flanagan states the desired vision: "Innovation—whether student-led, student-driven, or student-centered—will be just another routine competence, much like budgeting or auditing."

Richard Culatta offers still another way for higher education to rethink the rules: innovation clusters. The interconnection of basic research, product development, entrepreneurship, and test-bed sites in such clusters allows the market to innovate much more rapidly. These regional innovation clusters, first developed in fields such as biotechnology, have been established in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, among other cities. Rethinking the tradition of the institution as the data custodian, Culatta also suggests that we empower students with their own data: "Data about learners is spread across a variety of systems at various institutions. Students can often see their data online but may have no option to take it with them." If students could control their own data, they might create learning profiles and educational portfolios, ultimately allowing them to make better decisions about "which classes to take, which colleges to attend, and how much to pay for tuition."

Finally, one key rule that higher education leaders must rethink is the habit of "going it alone," according to Brad Wheeler and James Hilton. In "The Marketecture of Community," the authors note: "We must find ways to be more effective in solving the problems that face us all. Communities can be an essential part of the solution." Many investments in information technology do not result in competitive advantage or comparative advantage. The solitary approach, write Wheeler and Hilton, must give way to new models for buying clubs, cooperative communities, and collaborative communities. Higher education faces a partnership imperative.

The old rules of "it can't be done" are being flipped into questions of "why can't we do that?" So much is possible. We can learn new approaches, we can innovate business models, and we can provide even greater value. Rethinking the rules must be part of higher education's discipline of innovation.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 47, no. 6 (November/December 2012)


Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,400 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Dr. Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Dr. Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Dr. Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Game Changers.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Dr. Oblinger serves on a variety of boards including the American Council on Education (ACE), and DuraSpace. Previous board and advisory service includes the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project, and the NSF Committee on Cyberinfrastructure. She currently serves as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Dr. Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of eight books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, Learning Spaces, and Game Changers. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds three honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (bachelor's, master's, and PhD) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


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