The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

Perhaps no idea has captivated the imagination of change agents within higher ed to the same degree as Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” His central observation is that seemingly invulnerable incumbents are displaced not by evolutionary better technologies, what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations,” but by cheaper and simpler technologies that are initially of lower quality. Over time, the simpler and cheaper technology improves to a point that it displaces the incumbent. Large companies are designed to produce sustaining innovations, and can seldom introduce the disruptive innovations that will result in lower profits and service levels in the short-to-medium term.

According to Christensen and Eyring, online learning is a classic disruptive innovation. Initially of lower quality than traditional face-to-face courses, the quality of online learning has progressed to a point where its cost advantages (both in fixed and opportunity costs) are set to disrupt the incumbent providers of higher ed. Institutions that figure out how to lower costs while increasing access and quality, through a combination of blended and online learning and a focus on student needs, will replace colleges and universities that fail to embrace the new technology and/or do not re-organize around the demands of non-traditional, adult and digitally savvy learners.

The Innovative University builds its case for the coming disruption of higher ed, one in which “consumers” (students) have far greater educational choice, through a close examination of the evolution of both Harvard and BYU-Idaho. The authors’ goal is demonstrate how the Harvard model rose to pre-eminence, and why this model makes a poor choice for emulation. Harvard and a few other wealthy institutions of higher learning can afford to bundle discovery research (in every subject) with teaching (in every major). For schools lacking billion dollar endowments, the design of BYU-Idaho, with its emphasis on teaching and learning and its aggressive use of blended and online learning, may be a better model.

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