Is Higher Education Ripe for Disruption?

Disruptive innovations are those that open up new markets by creating a demand using a simpler or different package of attributes from those available in existing markets.  Such disruptions tend to emerge in contexts remote from the immediate concerns of an established industry, but ultimately have wide and deep effects that can cause radical shifts.  Disruptive innovation is often less about the product and more about the delivery system or point of access to the product.  For example, most of us still watch movies or tv shows, but tend to download or stream the content rather than visit a Blockbuster.  Most of us listen to music and follow the news, but tend to download or stream music and use the internet to follow the headlines.   In the past, we may have opened up our morning newspaper or put a record on a turntable.  One of the lessons is that it is not sufficient to rely on demand for the product to drive a given mode of delivery.

While it is difficult to identify industries and firms ripe for disruption, the tendency is to point to large-scale concerns with overpriced products and stilted business models based on industrial-era formats.  Higher education has been in the sights of those writing about disruptive innovation for precisely this reason.  Its reliance on mass delivery of material through face-to-face lectures, the credit system which offers degrees based on time investment rather than competency, and its increasingly overpriced credential system has the hallmarks of an industry ripe for innovation.

I would argue that higher education is not a perfect fit, however, for the types of analysis offered by Clayton Christiansen and Sebastian Thrun and others concerned with disrupting education and encouraging more radical innovations.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.  A better comparison might be with the travel industry, similarly engaged in delivering what might be termed an ‘experience’, and one which operates on the basis of time as an investment [or, in the case of a vacation or an education, a reward for effort].

Experience or even time is a more complex commodity than a book or a song.  Although web-based booking has almost completely replaced travel agencies, professors are not like travel agents in that teaching involves a more complex and involved relationship than simply the ‘delivery’ of the material and the ‘reception’ in the mind of the learner.  Music and movies are still ‘mass produced’ and streaming a movie or song is virtually the same experience as playing the song on a record or watching a VHS.  In those industries, innovation was more disruptive because the experience the products offered were interchangeable.  In education as in travel, the experiences are more differentiated and uniqueness is the stock in trade, and increasingly, it is theIfQYv singular and unique interaction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ that creates and adds value.

it is for this broad reason that I hesitate to apply the frame of disruptive innovation to higher education.  Yes, there are problems with the mass delivery model based on lectures and textbooks and tutorials.  Yes, there will be challenges to the delivery model through MOOCs and even peer-led educational models as found on Redditt and other sites. However, a more likely outcome than a full rupture may be a disaggregation of the educational functions of accreditation, time in class, competencies, and resources.  In my next blog post, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption.  In fact, I will further argue that Arts education is actually less vulnerable to disruptive innovation than the STEM subjects precisely because of its unique character as an experience created by the organic relationship between teacher and student.  Education is as much process as product.