Higher Education Strategy Associates

Why the “Great Disruption” is Bogus

So apparently Inigral CEO Michael Staton – who by and large is a sensible guy – has been talking up this idea about higher education being about to undergo a “Great Disruption.” Why he thinks this is the case isn’t clear – he spends most of his Inside Higher Ed article explaining why higher education isn’t, contra some of higher education’s weirder critics, in a bubble, but he does think everyone needs to spend a lot of money adapting to it right now.

This is what’s known as “talking your own book.” We consultants all do it to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right. And in this case, I happen to think Staton’s dead wrong.
The best analogy I can think of here is the frenzy over the “Death of Distance” in the mid-1990s. You may recall that there was briefly an intellectual fad for thinking that the “information superhighway” (younger readers: yes, some people really called it that) would render place irrelevant, allow people to work and collaborate from wherever they were and render large urban conglomerations ever less relevant.

Some of that occurred, of course, but as it turned out place started to matter more than ever. We like talking to people all over the world on the Internet, but we like physically working with and learning from others in the flesh.

And so it is for higher education. Obviously, technological change is having a very big effect on the way we store, use and relate to information. At the margin, we can improve undergraduate learning outcomes using technology, though as we pointed out in a study a few weeks ago, we need to get a lot better at integrating the technology.

But is this stuff going to replace a traditional undergraduate degree for the 18-24 crowd (which is, after all, still the core business of just about every university in the world)? Absolutely not. Students and their parents think it’s as important as ever to get their education in the flesh. There is no reason at all to think that this is going to change, and every reason to believe that parents will continue to pay top dollar for a developmental experience which is deeply based in intensive human contact.

As I noted last week, one university business line (adult professional education) is vulnerable to new technologies. Everything else, for the foreseeable future, is going to be remarkably insensitive to technological change. Period.

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