January 5, 2012

It Is All About Disruption

Over the break, I was reading The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out . Not exactly beach reading, but I didn't get away to any beaches, so...


It is co-written by Clayton Christensen, which is what initially caught my eye. He is considered "the father of the theory of disruptive innovation."  His previous books include The Innovator's Dilemma, which examined business innovation, and The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

The Innovative University is an analysis of the traditional university we know to get at its "DNA" which then leads to how (and why) higher education needs to change to have any future success.

From the book jacket:
The language of crisis is nothing new in higher education—for years critics have raised alarms about rising tuition, compromised access, out of control costs, and a host of other issues. Yet, though those issues are still part of the current crisis, it is not the same as past ones. For the first time, disruptive technologies are at work in higher education. For most of their histories, traditional universities and colleges have had no serious competition except from institutions with similar operating models. Now, though, there are disruptive competitors offering online degrees. Many of these institutions operate as for-profit entities, emphasizing marketable degrees for working adults. Traditional colleges and universities have valuable qualities and capacities that can offset those disruptors' advantages—but not for everyone who aspires to higher education, and not without real innovation. How can institutions of higher education think constructively and creatively about their response to impending disruption?

Throughout the book Christensen and Eyring show what it takes to apply Christensen's acclaimed model of disruptive innovation to a higher education environment. The Innovative University explores how universities can find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions and thereby save themselves from decline

Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen to describe a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.

Some examples of disruptive innovation would include cellular phones disrupting fixed line telephony, the traditional full-service department store and doctor's office being disrupted by online and discount retailers and retail medical clinics. Christensen also sees an earlier disruptor of the four-year college experience as being community colleges.


I agree with him that companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ lives change - newer phones but customers who don't want to upgrade yet - and so most organizations end up producing products or services that are actually too good and too expensive for many of their customers. But I don't think that model works for education.

In education, customers/students innovate faster than the schools. They have the technology in their hands before we have it or a way to use it in our classrooms. And yet, schools continue to charge too much for an inferior product.

I wish I believed that education was consciously opening the door to “disruptive innovations,” but that is not what I see.

Clayton Christensen is Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Although he has had health issues the past few years, he continues to write and I discovered that he has a newer book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, out that I will need to order.


It seems that in education, Christensen and the other authors are pointing to "student-centric education" as the disruptor of our current "interdependent curricular architecture." Much of that is made possible through technology.


He has written about online learning for student-centered innovation and many educators and institutions will be pleased to hear that disruptive technology/innovation in education can help create a new market and value network.

They will be less pleased to know that it eventually goes on to disrupt the existing market and eventually displaces it.

Disruptive ideas improves a product or service in ways that the market does not expect. Those ideas will be designed for a different set of consumers. They will probably lower the cost in the existing market.

That might translate into the new, improved School 2.0 for Student 2.0. And all at a lower cost. But who will be providing that education? Harvard, Rutgers, NJIT, Passaic County Community College, MITx, University of Phoenix, The Open University, Google, Facebook or some new entity that doesn't even exist today?

Cross-posted from Serendipity35

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