Is Higher Education Redefining Itself?

Disruption. Smaller and weaker prevailing. Crisis. This is the theory advocated by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, eminent professor and participant in the University of Phoenix Executive Education Series on Innovation. Christensen is the father of the idea of “disruption” as we currently understand it, that smaller, weaker, but more innovative companies break into the low end of a market, then end up completely overtaking previously dominant ones. In a recent interview with “Wired” magazine, Christensen applied his well-known theory to higher education:

“I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.”

To those of who are old hands in the classroom, this is somewhat troubling. His opinion is driven most importantly by the increasing utilization and application of online learning. It is expanding exponentially and available to a broader range of potential students. Christensen is convinced that the field will follow Christensen’s classic examples of disruption.

“Mini mills killed off big steel companies by making low quality, low margin rebar, then working their way up to eat their entire business. The same process is starting to happen in higher education. “

On one hand we have schools aggressively targeting the high end of higher education. Startups like The Minerva Project plan to offer an Ivy-caliber education at less than half the price that those universities charge. Christensen said in the interview that an online accounting course from BYU outstrips anything Harvard Business School can offer.

“Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid.”

So Christensen is convinced that disruption is coming for higher education. To be successful, every university will have to change. Otherwise, they’re going to be overtaken more rapidly than can imagine.

Do you agree? What are the changes that you believe will have the greatest effects on higher education?

For those of us who have taught in Proprietary Schools, the Internet has been a part of our teaching for a long time. So it becomes difficult to view online education as such a disruptive factor. As I reflect on my experience, the Internet has been a nice addition, but hardly “disruptive”. Or has it? I have used the Internet for posting messages, engaging in discussion, for linking to information that exists “out there” or that I have posted. Mostly, I have used Online as an extension of the more conventional approach I have taken in the classroom. Not very disruptive.

But look what is starting to happen! For one thing, a large multitude of major universities have committed to the development and expansion of online learning. And they are approaching it as an entirely new platform, not just an extension of the current, more traditional offerings. The Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs)” have exploded on the scene, offering hundreds of courses online at no cost. Although to date none provide actual college credit, it will change quickly, especially as universities offer them under their own curriculum with local faculty discussion groups. What about 250,000 students in a course?

There is a debate raging about the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, but for sure it has opened the door to new thinking on how to offer courses to more students at a more reasonable cost. I’ll discuss these issues in later posts, but it is clear that these new offerings are having a great deal of influence.

I have taken several courses through Coursera, a collective startup of 62 universities offering these courses. I found every one to be very effective, well executed, beautifully illustrated and rigorous in the amount of information included. Yes, it was impersonal, but if you joined in the discussion groups it did feel more collegial.

It is hard to know where this is all going. We’ll see many more of these being offered in the coming year, including early efforts at allowing some to earn college credits. It will be interesting to see more of the leading professors share their craft with thousands of students. It will be interesting to see how it will all affect higher education. And most assuredly, it will be interesting to see how “disruptive” it will all be.

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