In my preliminary investigation into disruptive innovation in higher education, I’ve come across a commonly held belief that online education is a disruptive innovation (Archer, Garrison and Anderson and Horn are advocates). This frustrates me as it seems to fundamentally miss the point of disruption.

For those of you not familiar with Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, the basic premise is that there are two types of innovation – sustaining, which improves on systems and procedures but does not fundamentally change the way they are undertaken, and disruptive, which may not initially seem like an improvement (cheaper, less robust etc) but completely changes the way in which systems and procedures happen, and opens them up to new markets.

Therein lies the rub. Most advocates of online education cite the fact that online education is available to new markets, and initially seemed like an inferior way of delivering education, but has become massively popular. Now to the last point, I won’t argue that online education is a huge market, and I certainly won’t argue that people often think it’s inferior to face to face learning. But to the first point, have we really made education available to new markets online? I know there’s a lot of song and dance currently around OERs and the likes of Khan Academy, but in terms of formal tertiary education, I don’t believe we are accessing new markets at all.

The reason? Online education in its current form isn’t disruptive. It allows education to be delivered in more or less the same format it always has – lectures, readings, essays, exams. It certainly isn’t cheaper (perhaps to deliver, but students don’t pay less to take online units), and it’s not taking the lower end of the market by storm. Until we start designing online learning that is truly disruptive – that is, completely changes the way in which education is delivered – non-traditional markets are not going to engage with higher education, online or not.

For some food for thought on what real disruptive online learning might look like, check out @jimgroom‘s DS106 course, or @jokay and @deangroom‘s Minecraft project.


Mike Bogle · June 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

Indeed, I love the idea of disruption in education, but more of than not it’s not what we see when we look at existing uses of technology. We see usage that eases administrative loads via dissemination of course materials, not creative approaches that empower learning.

The closest thing I’ve seen to “disruption” here was when Lectopia was made an opt-out service, effectively meaning instructors were recorded unless they indicated they didn’t want to be. Yet the onus was still left to them as to whether the link to the recordings was distributed. So in the end there wasn’t much of any change.

The question of how useful/effective full-length audio recordings are is another matter of course.

To me a technology is only truly disruptive when it causes friction with existing structures and organisational systems. Backchannel chat is disruptive, Facebooking in class is disruptive, abandoning formal systems and rolling your own because they’re fundamentally better is disruptive – but unfortunately the instances of this sort of thing aren’t particularly high in my experience.

Really, unless you’re pissing someone off by doing something it’s not really disruptive 🙂

Sarah Thorneycroft · June 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm

You have no idea how much I wish I could cite that last line of yours in the paper I’m writing at the moment…! 🙂

Geoff Young · June 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I guess the strategy we developed to move blended learning into mainstream teaching practice at Wodonga TAFE may be classed as Disruptive Innovation.

We focussed on small teaching cohorts across all delivery departments and created pockets of change/success and let that move ‘virally’ across the rest of the teaching departments. Whilst initially it wasn’t seen as game changing or paradigm shifting it did get build interest which led to wider and more mainstream adoption of blended learning as a key component in our teaching practice. While initially to the wider teaching community it may have been seen as classically sustaining in that it improved systems (via Moodle) and procedures as the tempo of change increased it was definitely seen as an improvement at all levels of our business- teaching and the associated ‘administrivia’.

It is safe to say that we have now moved blended learning into common teaching practice across the Institute and that it should be seen as disruptive innovation as it has (to paraphrase) completely changed the way in which our systems and procedures happen, and opened them up to new markets.

WittyKnitter · June 2, 2011 at 6:26 pm

I’m never sure why people think they will save money by delivering classes online. At [unamed huge Uni] our online learning budget is in the millions, and it hasn’t cut the demand for f-t-f teaching spaces. Now we’re also providing spaces for students to work in groups across campus at a cost of more 10s of millions. Most of this is being spent to meet perceived student demand, and keep things running smoothly. Disruption isn’t even contemplated, let alone considered a Good Thing 🙂

Sarah Thorneycroft · June 2, 2011 at 7:21 pm

You actually make a good point with ‘perceived student demand’ – part of my thesis will look at student perceptions of higher education and how their demand drives the delivery of education. I have had suspicions for a long time now that students don’t know what’s good for them – they seem to have a concept of what higher ed is based on god knows what – American college dramas probably – and it really is just lecture, readings, essay, exam. Anything that deviates from this is treated with suspicion and whinged about on Facebook.
So with any luck – in about a year or so I’ll have an answer for you :).

peps mccrea · June 7, 2011 at 6:50 am

Good chat. Hard thing is like you say, to not do the same things using different tools. Even harder to do different using different tools whilst making the most of what we understand about learning (that which was generated for a different context, but learning is learning and waste is waste).

Asks some big questions about ‘what is the role of the teacher’ and ‘what is pedagogy’ in the digital age?

Assume you keep an eye on this

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