Disruptive innovations in higher ed emerging from outside mainstream

Thought-leader discusses the innovations derived by the emergence of online learning, and what it means for higher education.

Copyright: The Christensen Institute.
Copyright: The Christensen Institute.

[Recently] I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to explore the barriers to, and opportunities for, innovation. My full written testimony is here.

In my remarks, I clarified what disruptive innovation is, as the theory is all too often misunderstood and misapplied. I explained that disruptive innovations carry four rules worth noting. They typically start by serving nonconsumers outside of the mainstream—areas where the alternative is literally nothing at all. They tend to be simpler than existing services, so the elite and the sector’s leading organizations tend to dismiss them. Accordingly, they both redefine the notion of what is quality and performance, and they don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory structures. Third, incumbent organizations cannot successfully adopt them within their core operations. And finally, they predictably and reliably improve over time to tackle more complex problems to transform a sector into one that is more affordable and accessible.

In education, online learning is the first disruptive innovation since the advent of the printing press. Combined with competency-based learning—in which students progress upon true mastery of their learning, not because of an arbitrary time-based measure— there is a big opportunity to transform our higher education system into a more affordable, student-centered one that is able to serve many more students.

True to form, we are seeing a variety of potentially disruptive organizations powered by online learning emerge from outside traditional higher education. These upstarts are reaching those students who need more education but for reasons having to do with convenience and accessibility, simplicity, and cost, are, at that point in their lives, nonconsumers of traditional higher education. The organizations are generally simpler, more focused institutions than our traditional colleges and universities and do not look like traditional higher education; they do not have four- or even two-year programs, they lack breadth, they do not do academic research, and they don’t have grassy green quads. Accordingly, the existing regulatory structures do not know how to judge them. Even as many of our traditional institutions of higher education have paid lip service to the innovations these new entities are unlocking, by and large they have not harnessed their disruptive potential themselves. And although they are starting by solving simple problems, we can predict with certainty that this upstart sector as a whole will improve to solve more complex problems and further blur the lines around what is higher education.

Exciting innovations are emerging from colleges and universities using online, competency-based learning, but given that President Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University was testifying about that sector, I focused my remarks on three other groups of organizations that are, in classic disruptive fashion, emerging from the fringe outside of traditional colleges and universities.

(Next page: Coding bootcamps; skilling-up)