Higher Education Strategy Associates

No Disruption Here, Folks

Dear God, save us from Margaret Wente. Someone handed her a copy of Clayton Christensen’s new book and the rest of us got this ludicrous piece of nonsense in our Saturday paper.

This has to be the worst meme in higher education this year. I know I’ve gone off on this before, but just to re-iterate:

There. Is. No. Great. Disruption. Coming. In. Higher. Education.


Yes, there are some very interesting educational experiments going on out there. But does any of this amount to a serious challenge to universities? Does any of it make it more likely that 18- to 24-year-olds will abandon schools to go take courses online? No, because apart from some marginal techno-freaks, everyone thinks education is a social activity, which requires a much richer set of interactions than is possible online. Does it pose any challenge to research-based graduate education? No, because again, the creation of human capital involves rubbing elbows.

The new technology does make certain types of education – essentially continuing education and certain types of professional development – less costly and more convenient. And to a certain clientele (but not 18- to 24-year-olds) this matters. But this clientele is pretty marginal at most universities, so it’s hard to see why institutions would face some kind of disruptions. In fact, since this kind of education is relatively low-prestige, you can even see where some universities would be happy to punt this clientele and leave it to massive outside organizations using economies of scale to pursue a Wal-Mart education strategy.

Ask yourself this – since automation and computers do best in situations where products are generic rather than highly customized, why would anyone expect this technology to have a greater effect on the highly idiosyncratic PSE market than it does on highly standardized K-12? Outside second language learning and some intro math/stats classes, it’s hard to see which bits of traditional undergraduate degrees are standardizable and hence susceptible to this approach.

There’s one more reason this whole disruption idea is bogus. It’s because most people, at the end of the day, want credentials at least as much as they want any skills and knowledge gained from participating in education. Until these new education providers work out how to actually deliver degrees on a mass scale, I’d argue they are more of a threat to the Learning Annex than to universities.

But doesn’t MITx do that, I hear you say? No, it doesn’t. And I’ll explain why tomorrow.

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4 Responses to No Disruption Here, Folks

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