Disruptive innovation in education



A new study, The Innovative University: What College Presidents Think About Change in American Higher Education, sponsored by Blackboard and The Chronicle of Higher Education, has this to say about disruption:

Well over half of all presidents believe that at least a moderate amount of disruption is needed in higher education. Years ago disruption to higher-education’s business model was not something a college president was likely to promote. These days, disruption is sometimes a rallying cry from the president’s office. This is a dramatic change from the way campuses have traditionally conducted their business, through evolutionary change.

When I saw that yesterday, my eyes rolled. As one who has run a business, I’ve always seen Clayton Christensen’s “disruptive innovation” as simply another bit of gobbledegook getting in the way of getting things done.

It turns out I am not the only one. Jull Lepore, writing in the June 23, 2014 New Yorker, goes further:

It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

No kidding. Especially that last part. I never knew how shaky before reading Lepore, but I never trusted it–or Christensen’s advice to higher education. As Lepore writes:

Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries.

That should long have been obvious. That it is still not is mind-boggling. She goes on:

The publication of “The Innovative University,” in 2011, contributed to a frenzy for Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, at colleges and universities across the country, including a collaboration between Harvard and M.I.T., which was announced in May of 2012. Shortly afterward, the University of Virginia’s panicked board of trustees attempted to fire the president, charging her with jeopardizing the institution’s future by failing to disruptively innovate with sufficient speed; the vice-chair of the board forwarded to the chair a Times column written by David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami,” in which he cited Christensen.

Christensen and Eyring’s recommendation of a “mix of face-to-face and online learning” was drawn from an investigation that involves a wildly misguided attempt to apply standards of instruction in the twenty-first century to standards of instruction in the seventeenth.

Lepore details just how nutty that attempted application actually is. Read the article and I suspect you’ll agree.

Just in case you still think that “disruptive innovation” has value to colleges and university, remember that, as Lepore point out:

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

And it is not going to help us improve higher education.