Symposium Entry

The disruptive innovation that will skill up America

May 27th, 2015

Scale and modularization through CBE will provide significant opportunities for learners.

Disruption is probably one of the most overused buzzwords in education, yet few seem to know what it means. In higher education especially, there’s a tendency to take an exciting technological advancement, call it a disruptive innovation, cram it into the classroom experience, and then hope that efficiencies will magically appear. But a disruptive innovation doesn’t necessarily entail a technological breakthrough. In fact, in our most recent work in higher education called Hire Education, Clayton Christensen and I underscore that there is true disruptive potential in online competency-based education (CBE) aligned to workforce needs even though the parts of this whole are not at all new.

We’ve all heard of workforce training, competencies, and online learning. They’re not new phenomena, but online competency-based education is revolutionary because it marks the critical convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model.

The theory of disruptive innovation helps illustrate how the inertia of academia inevitably makes way for upstart disruptors, such as online, competency-based educational programs, to seize a market of untapped connections between learning and work.

Most institutions get locked into the complex orchestration of resources, priorities, and processes of not just one but three very different, costly, and conflicting value propositions that center on teaching, research, and facilitating a social community of students. In this complex orchestration, it becomes impossible to parse the exact costs of producing these interdependent lines of business. And there’s no way that technology will somehow magically disentangle these locked business models to create a newly efficient model of higher education.

Meanwhile, there are a growing number of students who are finding themselves over-served by these augmented, bundled services. Nearly 71 percent of U.S. “college” students do not participate in the residential college experience that we tend to glorify; most of them commute, work part-time, have family commitments, or do not have the luxury of majoring in a field that has no direct relevance to their future employment goals. These students are often looking for flexible, cost-effective, and streamlined programs that move them ahead in their working lives.

Linking students to employers through online CBE

Online CBE providers plant themselves squarely in the midst of these nontraditional students and center on a single, simpler value proposition: to serve as the critical missing link between higher education and the workforce. It turns out that employers cannot gauge what students can actually do from a list of courses and letter grades. Diplomas serve more as a sorting mechanism for general proxies for potential talent.

Competencies, on the other hand, are clear about students’ precise skill sets, dispositions, and capabilities. There are explicit learning objectives that, for instance, delineate that a student can evaluate the credibility of online resources, or apply financial principles to solve business problems, or create and explain big data results using data-mining skills and advanced modeling techniques.

For students, competency-based education is hard. They’re not able to get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore apply dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency.

Online CBE providers take this rigorous learning experience and marry it with ever-improving online technologies. The resulting ability to scale and modularize learning enables online CBE to narrow the skills gap in ways that traditional forms of postsecondary education cannot duplicate.

Why scale and modularization matter

Scale is important for various reasons. There are already various offline CBE providers as well as community colleges that create on-demand learning pathways to mitigate workforce shortages, but they lack the ability to replicate those programs in a cost-effective manner. Online CBE, however, is already comparable to or lower than the cost of community colleges for students, in large part due to a new kind of architecture of learning.

Technology in this case sets into motion modularization. When learning is broken down into competencies—rather than by courses or by subject matter—modules of learning can be easily arranged, combined, and scaled online into different programs for very different industries.

Although most of the current development of CBE programs is occurring in traditional degree programs, online CBE is almost more powerful in the way that it can be used to skill up students for new and emergent fields that don’t necessarily end in a specific credential or a degree. This will be vital for the millions of nontraditional students looking for more direct and cost-effective pathways to and within the workforce.

Imagine a future in which students and working adults will be able to take a mere handful of modules—as opposed to a degree or certificate program—to skill up and move up the employment chain. Traditional institutions will have a tough time competing for student tuition dollars, not only because these modules will be tailor-made programs for positions that are in demand, but also because these will be engaging, mastery-based learning experiences at a fraction of the price.

The idea of scaling a one-on-one in mastery learning experience had been unfathomable to Benjamin Bloom in 1984 when he introduced his work on the 2 Sigma Problem. It was clear to him that students tutored individually in a mastery-based format were able to perform at two standard deviations above the average of the control class, with obvious advantages in their abilities to problem-solve, apply principles, analyze, and be creative; however, Bloom simply could not imagine a way of scaling such a tutorial. Only the wealthiest might be able to take advantage of this kind of learning.

But now, technology in the form of smart learning platforms and data analytics equip instructors with clearer profiles of their students. It is as though each student has a personalized tutor, but in this case, one tutor can serve many more students at a time because she can efficiently gauge the students’ level of understanding and intervene only when necessary. These data-driven interactions between teachers and students actually become tailored, richer teaching moments and more cost-effective interventions.

Critics nevertheless insist on denigrating such routes aligned to labor market needs as narrow, vocational training for single dead-end jobs—not careers. This is an oft-repeated and false dichotomy: job training in no way prevents students from learning how to learn for a lifetime. And in a knowledge economy, attaining a first job is a major inroad to other, life-changing opportunities as well as increased wage earnings premiums. It is unlikely that from here on out, four years of college will last anyone a lifetime. All of us will have to continually retool—some of us for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

The number of alternative learning providers singularly focused on a simple value proposition such as creating pathways to jobs in demand will only grow. Agile and adaptable online CBE workforce solutions have the power to produce a separate and possibly even more powerful set of industry-validated learning experiences that could supersede the traditional degree. Now that would be truly disruptive.

At the time of this writing, Dr. Michelle Weise was a senior research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. She is now executive director of the Innovation Lab at Southern New Hampshire University.