“Disruptive Innovation” in Universities is not as important as Value
The below-linked article by Jill Lepore is remarkable for its careful dissection of Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” (Thanks to Shriram Krishnamurthi for the link.) As Lepore points out, Christensen’s theories were referenced often by those promoting MOOCs. I know I was told many times (vehemently, ferociously) that my emphasis on learning, retention, diversity was old-fashioned, and that disrupting the university was important for its own sake, for the sake of innovation. As Lepore says in the quote below, there may be good arguments for MOOCs, but Christensen’s argument from a historical perspective just doesn’t work. (Ian Bogost shared this other critical analysis of Christensen’s theory.)
I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, and I see similarities between how Lepore describes reactions to Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” and how Lewis describes the market around synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed financial instruments. There’s a lot of groupthink going on (and the Wikipedia description is worth reading), with the party line saying, “This is all so great! This is a great way to get rich! We can’t imagine being wrong!” What Lewis points out (most often through the words of Dr. Michael Burry) is that markets work when there is a logic to them and real value underneath. Building financial instruments on top of loans that would never be repaid is ludicrous — it’s literally value-less. Lepore is saying something similar — innovation for its own sake is not necessarily valuable or a path to success, and companies that don’t disruptively innovate can still be valuable and successful.
I don’t know enough to critique either Lewis or Lepore, but I do see how the lesson of value over groupthink applies to higher-education. Moving education onto MOOCs just to be disruptive isn’t valuable. We can choose what value proposition for education we want to promote. If we’re choosing that we want to value reaching students who don’t normally get access higher education, that’s a reasonable goal — but if we’re not reaching that goal via MOOCs (as all the evidence suggests), then MOOCs offer no value. If we’re choosing that we want students to learn more, or to improve retention, or to get networking opportunities with fellow students (future leaders), or to provide remedial help to students without good preparation, those are all good value propositions, but MOOCs help with none of them.
Both Lewis and Lepore are telling us that Universities will only succeed if they are providing value. MOOCs can only disrupt them if they can provide that value better. No matter what the groupthink says, we should promote those models for higher-education that we can argue (logically and with evidence) support our value proposition.
In “The Innovative University,” written with Henry J. Eyring, who used to work at the Monitor Group, a consulting firm co-founded by Michael Porter, Christensen subjected Harvard, a college founded by seventeenth-century theocrats, to his case-study analysis. “Studying the university’s history,” Christensen and Eyring wrote, “will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practical strategies for success.” … That doesn’t mean good arguments can’t be made for online education. But there’s nothing factually persuasive in this account of its historical urgency and even inevitability, which relies on a method well outside anything resembling plausible historical analysis.