Can this innovative theory save higher education?

2. Understand why technology, like online learning, is disruptive.

Though online learning is the technological core driving disruptive innovation in higher education, Christensen said that most colleges and universities do not understand how the technology is transformative.

“Think about the radio,” he explained. “The radio was successful to my mother’s generation because of the quality of sound it was able to produce. For me and my generation, the portable radio was popular for a different reason: it’s accessibility, and therefore freedom away from a specific area.”

If the radio is higher education, and online learning the technology available to it, success of higher education doesn’t depend on improving the technology, it depends on how it is deployed and who it’s marketed to.

“It’s not about how can Harvard Business School’s technology be better than older technology, but more about reaching those previously unreached,” he continued.

3. Don’t try to change from the inside-you will fail.

A final example given by Christensen was when he was asked by the University of Phoenix to record his 10 most popular lectures to be distributed by students. Christensen, already aware of the power of “the little guy,” agreed.

“It was interesting, because the University of Phoenix rented out this beautiful lecture space at a nearby art institute, which had a huge bay window that would be my backdrop. I was told the University would find people to populate the lecture as it was recorded, and when I gave the lecture, I noticed all the people were incredibly beautiful…I found out later that they were hired models.”

As Christensen related the story, the models were used for moments when Christensen’s lecture became a bit dull—the camera would pan to the models who looked interested in what Christensen was saying, therefore motivating the attendee to keep watching.

Other tactics used by the University included background music that rose to a crescendo during the lecture’s key points.

“I realized that this wasn’t just providing a lecture online, it was a whole new model of presenting information,” he related.

Christensen concluded by saying that colleges and universities, once they understand that this different model is disruptive, shouldn’t try to change from within; but, rather, through offsets.

“If you’re a giant and you try to emulate a little guy, you’ll fail. But if you offer similar services like the little guy in an offset, you’ll do better,” he said. “One example of this is with mega department stores in the 90s—those that tried to offer cheaper goods to a wider consumer base by drastically changing their inventory ultimately failed. The one that survived was a large department store at the time called Dayton’s. Their offshoot store is known today as Target.”

Watch Christensen’s keynote, further commentary and full symposium:

[field name=iframe3]