The role of isomorphism in higher education

How should universities change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century?

I’ve begun to adopt a systems-driven lens to understand universities and the forces that drive or impede change. The concept of isomorphism comes from the field of sociology, and looks at the forces that drive organizations to be similar to one another in process or structure. There are three main types: coercive (external pressure from laws, regulations, social norms or customer expectations), mimetic (imitating best practices of successful organizations, in this case, top-tier universities) and normative (internal pressure from groups ‘within the ivory tower’).

Universities are in the unfortunate position of being susceptible to all three types of isomorphism. When we think about adaptation and change, we need to look at evolving systems in and around universities as well. This could include international ranking systems, quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms, faculty employment and tenure, student (and parent) expectations surrounding higher education and relationships with corporate/industry leaders.

The question remains: how can universities work against these forces to differentiate and offer programming that truly meets student needs, and perhaps more importantly, keeps them engaged? With the rise of alternative education (think MOOCs, interdisciplinary degrees, open universities), figuring this one out becomes more important than ever.

Putting my design hat on, I think the concept of prototyping could perhaps be helpful; small experiments that are documented and evaluated by stakeholders could break through isomorphic patterns and start to bring about changes to programs, curricula and institutional structures.

I like this graph by Alexander Osterwalder that documents the increased complexity of a prototypes as success builds over time:


While this is rooted in the business context, something similar could potentially apply to the higher ed environment.

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