The Dinosaurs May Stick Around

by Jane S. Shaw

I’ve been having a conversation with Rodrigo Arias, a software entrepreneur in Guatemala, about the theory of “disruptive technology” in higher education. He has questioned a key assumption of the theory.

The term disruptive technology started with Clayton Christensen, whose book The Innovator’s Dilemma revealed how some technologies, when adopted by outsiders, can destroy industries. For example, the personal computer brought an end to mini-computer companies such as DEC and Wang. Earlier, Sony wiped out companies such as RCA and Zenith by developing the transistor, starting with cheap pocket radios. 

In higher education, the question is whether the disruptive technology of online learning may have a similar impact on traditional colleges and universities.

Arias says that this particular pattern may apply only to some industries. In others, the big guys stay around. Apple, for example, has disrupted its own business by creating the iPad and cannibalizing the market for the iPod — and its profits are astounding. Two decades ago, Microsoft, then the giant, adopted Apple’s icon-based approach to its user interface and stayed profitable as well.

So, even though we see rapid growth in for-profit companies’ using online education and innovators like Khan Academy and StraighterLine, perhaps we should not assume that traditional universities will fall over like dinosaurs. Perhaps they will be more like Microsoft then and Apple now.

Arias notes that MIT, a traditional university, has created MITx, a new unit that not only teaches classes online to the public but gives a credential to those who pass it. Although the credential is from MITx rather than MIT, won’t the first three letters still mean a lot to potential employers? The first course, Circuits and Electronics, has 120,000 registrants.

This would keep MIT a player in a “disrupted” world.

Yet, conceivably, MITx could undermine MIT itself. Inside Higher Ed quotes one MIT faculty member as saying, “If students can master course materials online for free (or for a modest ‘credentialing’ fee), what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education?”

That question is a long way from being answered. But then, there are a lot of questions to be asked about the innovations swirling around higher ed.