Clayton Christensen on MOOC Disruption

An important article written by Clayton Christensen and Michelle Weise appeared in yesterday’s Boston Globe that relates both to MOOCs (still the primary subject of this blog) and the Monday series I’ve been running lately on how MOOCs and other forms of free learning might provide today’s (or, more likely tomorrow’s) students options other than going deeply into debt to earn a diploma from a traditional residential college.

I suspect that most Degree of Freedom readers are already familiar with Christensen’s work on disruptive technologies. But for those who have not heard of “disruption theory,” Christensen and colleagues like Weise (working at an institute founded to study market disruption) posit that the notion of better and cheaper technology pushing older costlier options out of the marketplace is actually not how most innovation occurs.

Rather, new technology entering a market is often dramatically inferior to what market leaders are offering. The archetypical example of an industry that underwent disruption is computing which was once dominated by “Big Iron” manufacturers like IBM and “Medium Iron” competitors like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), all of whom sold powerful, expensive mainframe and mini-computers to large institutions (such as government agencies, corporations and universities) who both needed and could afford such technology.

When microcomputers came on the scene in the form of standalone desktop devices like the Apple II, the companies that made mainframes and minis derided and dismissed them, almost as much as your kids would if you sent them off to college with one. For who could possibly want an underpowered toy that connected to nothing compared to a data crunching behemoth that wired together entire organizations?

The answer to that question was people who had no interest in buying what was previously considered a “computer” (i.e., a large, centralized system system). For the market for such standalone, underpowered “toys” were home users and small businesses who bought them as quickly as they could be assembled, a phenomenon that funded a parallel computer industry that either disrupted Big Iron manufacturers out of existence (DEC) or required them to dramatically transform (IBM).

Christensen, along with colleagues Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, published a book on what this disruption theory might say about education, and while that work mostly focused on primary and secondary schooling, his Boston Globe analysis of MOOCs brings up some important points to consider as MOOC euphoria and paranoia give way to a more measured analysis of what good can derive from respected colleges and universities giving away their best courses for free.

To begin with, the piece makes an important distinction between sustaining vs. disruptive education.

During the era of MOOC euphoria, a standard talking point was that, until MOOCs arrived, education had seen no innovation since the blackboard. Like so many dotcom era perceptions, this throwaway line assumes that innovation and technological innovation are one and the same. But if you look at how college has evolved over the last century, the amount of innovation is stunning.

State colleges, land-grant colleges, community colleges, for-profit colleges were all offering competition to brand-name private colleges long before online schools were added to the mix. And even within the allegedly hide-bound Ivies, you’ve seen an explosion of new programs, new majors, advanced labs and other educational enhancements that began expanding educational options well before Apple IIs were rolling off the assembly line.

And far from shunning technology, schools have been at the forefront of embracing new ways to teach that make use of the latest advances in computer hardware and software, to the point where participating in college today without a computer (or without interacting with multiple computers each day) is all but unimaginable. And even the expansion of clubs and organizations and the blinging out of dorms and facilities can be seen as innovations designed to enhance the college experience as a whole.

But as Christensen and Weise point out, these are all sustaining innovations, i.e., innovations designed to demonstrate to an existing market that the high price tag associated with a product (in this case, the entire college experience leading to a degree) is still worth paying. As such, they are equivalent to old mainframe manufacturers doubling and tripling the speed and power of their machines for customers ready to pay two and three times what they paid before to have access to more and more computing resources.

But disruptive innovation, i.e., innovation that eventually leads to the replacement of one definition of a market by another, does not occur through market leaders adding ever more bells and whistles to their already expensive products. Nor does it occur when someone introduce a new product that seems to offer the same experience (or a subset of that experience, as with MOOCs) for less (or free).

Rather, genuine disruption originates in places where people have no choice but to turn to the (often inferior) new options. To take one example, I recently talked with Laurie Pickard who is doing a project similar to my One Year BA while working for USAID in Rwanda. And during that conversation, she introduced me to Kepler, a school that integrates MOOC content with on-site teaching and support in order to give local Rwandans the chance to participate in a quality higher education program, even if they lack the resources to attend any of the colleges where those courses originate.

As I mentioned in this piece (and emphasize further in my upcoming book), such stories should not be considered “feel good” tales about the charitable benefits of major colleges making their best courses available at no cost. Rather, they should be seen as glimpses into the future of how innovators will take the free learning resources increasingly coming online, integrate them with other content and services, and package them into a set of options that stand a serious chance of ultimately shaking up the status quo.

So when trying to figure out where disruptive vs. sustaining innovation in higher education may ultimately come from, it might be best to look not at existing colleges that innovate in order to demonstrate that their increasingly costly product is worth the price. Rather, we should be looking towards places where MOOCs and other educational breakthroughs are not considered poor substitutes for four years at U Penn, but are rather seen as the only educational option. For it is within these “no-choice” niches that genuine disruption originates.

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