Will disruptive innovation arrive in higher education?

A significant amount of my teaching about management of technology and innovation draws on the ideas of Clayton Christensen, and the concept of disruptive technologies.  These are innovations which can radically change the structure of a business and threaten the most powerful established players.  In recent years the widespread use of the smartphone is a particularly visible instance of a disruptive innovation changing the structure of an industry, with a very different set of players dominating the smartphone market from those who were most powerful in the traditional market.

It’s important to realise that although disruptive innovation has occured in many places over the years, it’s not a template for every change which is made possible by the introduction of new technology.  This week’s Times Higher Education reports that Christensen has now turned his attention to higher education.  Now the university sector is significant so far because, despite immense use of new technology and changes in the way that learning material is delivered, we haven’t seen huge changes in the structure of the sector.  The specialised players who work with IT and distance learning include the Open University here in the UK, which has been around since the 1960s and has seamlessly evolved from its use of television broadcasts after closedown, to today’s elaborate use of the Internet.  Conversely attempts to create completely online universities in the early 2000s, such as UNext which included the usability expert Donald Norman among its founders, remained as specialist players.

Of course, given that I’m employed by a traditional university, I have some interest in the current landscape not being unduly disrupted – at least until I retire!

Christensen and his collaborators suggest that, in the mainstream of the American university system which which they are most familiar, disruption will be driven by rising costs.  This is a contrast to other areas – for instance in the phone market disruption was driven by falling costs and by a sense that the trajectory of innovation (to use a word from Christensen’s writing) in products from the likes of Nokia and SonyEricsson was levelling off.  In any case, this is food for thought…

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