Let me first say that I am an admirer of Christensen’s work on Disruptive Innovation. I put myself squarely in the camp that believes in the value of understanding the power and practicality of how Disruptive Innovation really works and why it changes business, and sometimes industries.
On multiple occasions, however, as in the HBR article linked above, those at the Christensen Institute have over-emphasised the role of online learning in the context of disruptive innovation to the education sector. While online learning may play a role in the disruption of higher education, it is neither required, nor complete in terms of the role it plays. It is a technology play that is more significant in terms of digital disruption (as opposed to Disruptive Innovation), and therefore, more likely to be a Sustaining Innovation.
Online learning in its web-based form has been with us since the mid-nineties, and a great deal longer in pre-web forms (eg the EKKO LMS). The year that web-based learning first took hold is 1995. A range of initiatives around the globe (Rochester, Oregon, Wolverhampton, British Columbia, and Pennsylvania) all used the web to support and/or run classes within their institutional settings. Jerrold Maddox from Pennsylvania State University was the very first person to run a distance education course on the web. He actually had to wait for the first version of Mosaic to be available so that his art students could access the course.
From its origins, much of the focus on web-based learning and the evolution of systems to support it, especially Learning Management Systems, was focused on the use in institutional environments. That fact alone means that online learning fails the test of first being used for the purpose of engaging non-consumers. Irrespective of whether one takes a distance education view or an on-campus view, the use of online learning did not exclusively target non-consumers of education as the first market.
Many of us have lived through the innovations in web-based learning since then. Josh Bersin in his recent post, “A New Paradigm for Corporate Training: Learning in the Flow of Work” gives a useful high-level overview of the main transitions in online learning from both a corporate and education perspective and how the ecosystem is continuing to evolve.
While the Christensen Institute may choose to correct me on this point, there is another factor that I believe is critical to disruptive innovation. It is not a requirement to use technology to build the disruption (although often that is the most visible part of the new model), rather, it is actually about changing the underlying business model and revenue flow. To find the disruptive innovation in the education sector, there must be a change to the business model and a disruption to the role that institutions currently play.
Until more recently, a large number of universities have clearly stated that it is not their role to prepare their students for work. This has frequently been lamented in the press and elsewhere, and of course, there are different views on the debate (Globe and Mail, The Conversation, Wired etc) .While that topic is too large to be dealt with here, it is reasonable to say that in the current context, there is a substantial mismatch between stakeholder expectations in regard to what success looks like in relation to graduates. This is not a new phenomenon. In his work on Universities in the Digital Age (1997) John Seely Brown states that,
Undoubtedly, people in the system don’t usually like to be thought of as providing and seeking credentials. They have higher aims and higher goals. Moreover, as we will emphasize shortly, providing credentials is very far from all that universities do. Nonetheless, credentialling provides students with a tradable token in the job market. Crass though this may seem, this makes credentialling an important and complex part of what universities do.
Stripping out the broader role of universities, the main reason students go to university is to earn that first tradable token or credential to start their career.
Universities have traditionally had two monopolies that have enabled them to capture students (often via their parents). Firstly, access to knowledge and learning, and secondly, qualifications as the tradable token or credential that gives entry to the job market. With the advent of the web and it’s affordances of rich media and access to knowledge through ‘Open’ forms of learning, the first monopoly has been broken. Now, the second is now also under threat.
Where qualifications are the traditional form of credentials for employment, the most likely candidate for disruptive innovation to education is the emergence of alternative credentials. This has the potential to strike at the heart of the B2C value proposition of higher education institutions, ie the second monopoly. Models based on Recognition of Professional Practice (as opposed to Recognition of Prior Learning) that are competence- and capability-based and that do not require the infrastructure and cost of student learning as part of their model have already caused universities to pay close attention to the shift that is occurring.
From an ecosystem perspective, while various forms of online learning, including MOOCs, Open Education Resources (OER), Open Education and the like are desirable to better enable the disruption, they are not “the disruption”, and in some cases may not even be required where peer-to-peer experiential learning is an important part of development.