opinion

The Folly of Big Ideas

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What is the most cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption? A 2010 McKinsey report explored big, sexy ideas including programmable thermostats, electric motors and a complex process called retrocommissioning. Yet one might be surprised to find that the winner was a simple idea: improve and expand insulation.

Insulation isn’t particularly flashy or exciting—you can’t even see it most of the time—and the industry isn’t awash in lavishly funded insulation startups. Yet sometimes the simplest ideas win because they’re the most practical and cost-effective.

This is the folly of big ideas, and the education sector is certainly not immune to their appeal.

I recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual event that could be described as intellectual summer camp where a well-heeled crowd flies in to see big names—this year’s lineup included Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, David Petraeus, Loretta Lynch—discuss big ideas. Imagine the World Economic Forum in Davos had a baby with Burning Man.

This year’s festival featured a track called “The University at a Crossroads.” As panel after panel swapped soundbites around seemingly bold education ideas, I couldn’t escape this heretical thought: We don’t need big ideas, we need the will to implement some unsexy ones.

Take for example the following two ideas, shared during one panel on ways to reach “the next 50 million learners.” The Institute for the Future’s Jane McGonigal forecasted (but did not necessarily recommend) an idea that could emerge in the future in which blockchain technology—the innovation underlying Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies—to empower anyone in the world to give “learning credits” to anyone else. (The idea was also featured in Dr. McGonigal’s keynote at SXSWedu in March.) Dr. McGonigal further forecasted that each credit might be based on “one hour of learning.” The big idea is to radically democratize the learning market.

This idea doesn’t solve any problems, and I don’t believe it will materialize. Decentralized learning platforms like P2PU (one of many examples) already provide ways to learn outside traditional confines. A main reason these platforms haven’t had a larger effect on the landscape is that they still lack the signal value of an accredited institution. Implicit in the blockchain idea is the notion that college won’t be important in the near future, but find me one family who wouldn’t still send their own kids to college if they could afford it. Also, at a time when essentially every new achievement model is based at least in part on the concept of mastery rather than Carnegie units, this blockchain idea belies a greater excitement for the underlying technology than for solving real learning problems.

In contrast, Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell shared examples of some comparatively simple but arguably more powerful ideas that are having an immediate impact. First, when Sorrell became president in 2007, Paul Quinn College was in a food desert; there wasn’t a grocery store in the zip code or anywhere near campus. To address the resulting health issues facing his staff and students, Sorrell somewhat famously scrapped the college’s football program and turned the field into a community garden. Second, all full-time students participate in the college’s Work Program, requiring them to work up to eight hours per week in on-campus jobs to offset the cost of tuition. The program was born in recognition of the fact that most students were already working at least one job to help pay for school.

The Paul Quinn College ideas only help students who make it into college and can attend full-time. The next 50 million learners will still face enormous challenges to even access higher education. But juxtaposing these examples demonstrates the difference between novelty solutions and novel approaches to urgent problems. We fall victim to the folly of big ideas when we let their shine blind us, even temporarily, to the true nature of the problems we purport to address.

New ideas are important, and innovation has a role to play in improving education. But ideas don’t have to be new or complex to be powerful or impactful. Don’t forget about insulation.

What other powerfully simple ideas will we find the courage to get behind?

Adam Rosenzweig (@adamlevro) is Director of Business Development and Partnerships at Beyond 12

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