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Feb 19, 2012

The disruptive innovation

I am at the AACTE conference with a couple of colleagues. We all are impressed by how much the tone and the focus of these conferences have changed over the last few years. It used to be dominated by accreditation issues. The game was all about standards, data, and clever ways to comply. This year, the conversation is about innovation and change. The field is now obsessed by innovation, and it is not a worst possible affliction.

The keynote speaker was Clayton Christiansen, whose work we discussed at one of our TEIL meetings. He has recently applied his influential theory of disruptive innovation to higher education. The basic findings are these: First, a single course rather than an institution is becoming a unit of accreditation. A single well-developed course can be now used by very large number of people at significantly lower cost than a regular college course. Second, colleges already ceded some of the educational market to on-line institutions – the non-traditional students and those who would not have access to higher education at all. Another segment is the corporate universities who heavily rely on outsourced content delivery, and who captured much of professional development market. I can add that this also is happening in in-service teacher training. And these are the signs of typical disruptive innovation: giving up less profitable markets to lower quality producers. The trouble is, online teaching is getting better and better, and it will eventually spread into higher quality markets.

My sense is that Christiansen is exactly right. Higher education is due for a series of tremendous shocks, eventually resulting in reshaping of the industry’s landscape. Fewer institutions will be around, and those that survive will be doing different things than what we are doing now.

Christiansen is encouraging the higher education to do two things: embrace modularity (read outsource content and thus reduce cost), and concentrate on what we do best (changing people’s lives, providing meaningful experiences, and coaching/tutoring individual learners). Of course no one actually knows the future; Christiansen may be all wrong, and the new technology will not create disruptive innovation. After all, the same or similar hopes/fears were expressed about such new technologies as the television and computer-aided instruction.

What makes me believe Christiansen? - my own thinking. If we discover a great on-line low-cost module on a well-defined area, we will probably find a way of using it, instead of trying to develop expertise and teaching it ourselves. For example, if there was a great module on formative assessment or instructional technology, and it would cost less than what we spend on developing new courses, hiring a specialty faculty, etc. – tell me one reason why we should not use it in our programs? And I am pretty sure thousands of other college administrators are thinking along the same lines. We will never give up teaching, but may eventually give up delivery of some content, simply because someone else can do it cheaper and better. It is not the case yet – I do not see an abundance of cheap great online courses. The supply is not there. But it is only a matter of time.

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