Is Higher Education disrupted or not?

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, I mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free
Joplin Janis – Me And Bobby Mcgee

Do we have to expect that traditional education will disappear within the next three decennia as mainframe computers are replaced by handheld smartphones? Following Christensen and Horn (2013) Moocs will have this effect in time, with Moocs as disruptive innovation replacing brick-and-mortar universities.

However, in  Christensen, Horn, Caldera and Soares, they give a more nuanced approach, based on the existence of (open) distance learning institutions, given the different problems of (USA-based) higher education (p. 2): stagnating graduation rates; financial difficulties, both by the educational institutions, by the students and on the different government levels, declining prestige in the field of education, notwithstanding a good reputation in research.

To follow their 2011-analyses, we will give a description of disruptive innovation, followed by the analyze why ODL will be a disruptive force, but also reasons why it will fail if some conditions are not met.

Funnily, Moocs do not have the characteristics Christensen et al (2011) see as essential for ODL to become a disruptive force. Given the attention given in the last year to the possible disruptive influence of Moocs, it is interesting to see what the conditions leading to disruption in the educational sector.

Disruptive innovation

Disruption does not mean ‘a radical breakthrough improvement’, but it is an innovation replacing an existing complicated high price-high profit offering with a low price- low profit alternative, which is generally less complicated and with less functionality. This alternative replaces the original offering at the lower end of the market, but also opens up new opportunities in making the product or service available to customers who formerly could not understand or afford this product/service.

For a number of reasons the existing firms are not able to provide a similar alternative, as this alternative cause them to lose the higher profit upper part of the market. According to Christensen et al., business models are designed to solve one specific ‘problem’ and make money via a particular profit formula (p. 20). In an existing market it makes more sense to increase quality, prices and profit rates by moving production capacity from the low-profit bottom of the market toward the more profitable upper part of the market. A conclusion which is not fully accepted in the business model literature (see for example Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010), who assume that one organization can house more business models).

Assuming the new entrants to be price fighters, their costs advantage will disappear when the last of the original firms leaves the market. However, then:

..disruptive companies must move up-market through sustaining innovation once their business model has been established in one of the outer circles in order to sustain profitability and organizational vitality. The reason: If they stop this up-market pursuit and compete only against equal-cost competitors, then they have no cost advantage. It is only if they carry their low-cost business model up-market that they can retain their cost advantage against competitors (p. 15).

So the disrupting firms will move towards the top-end of the market pushing out the old existing firms.

The only exemption to this destructive force is IBM, who decided to open a new business unit at arm’s length, after the introduction of personal computers. In time, the business unit replaced the original mainframe producer!

ODL as disruptive innovation

Question is if the conclusions from the research into disruptive innovations in the profit sector are valid in a not-for-profit sector as education. Their answer is yes, because:

Improved profitability tends to drive the decision making in for-profit circumstances. But in not-for-profit circumstances, the ambition to do more and have a bigger footprint—an ambition driven both by administrations and often alumni in the case of education—precipitates precisely the same behavior as profit maximization in the for-profit world. The companies on the sustaining trajectory, when faced with the choice of making better products that merit better profit margins vs. making lower-priced, simpler products that merit slimmer margins, invariably find it more attractive to build and offer more and better (p. 14).

So, what are the problems with the present business models of education?

Christensen et all. distinguish three kinds of business models, solutions shops, value adding processes and facilitated network-users. In the table below, these three types of business models are described. Problem is that most universities try to combine at least two of these business models, as can be seen in the fourth column.



Source of income


Solution shops Institutions focused on diagnosing and solving unstructured problems such as consulting firms, advertising agencies.These shops deliver value primarily through the people. Fee-for-service model: being compensated for their inputs, not the results, because the outcome depends on many other factors. Most university faculty research is solution shop-like activity
Value-adding process businesses Organizations with value-adding process business models, in which resources and processes are used to transform inputs into more complete outputs of higher value. Value is created by efficient processes and organization. Income is based on the output of their work. Teaching
Facilitated user networks An enterprise in which the participants exchange things with each other. Fee for membership or fee for use. Thanks to the Internet, many university activities that were formerly conducted as solution shop and value-adding process businesses are evolving into facilitated networks among students and faculty, such as hosted discussion forums.

Because of the combination of different business models within the same organization, there will be costs of complexity: additional overhead costs and inefficiency in the organization of the different activities (education, research and consultancy).

So in this time of financial crisis and a reorientation of students, the reaction of  existing educational institutions will be to increase their efforts in the existing activities: putting more effort in excellent research, aiming for the outstanding students and academic standards.

In the view of Christensen et al. (2011) this ignores the fact that the educational customers are changing: was the majority of the students in the 18 – 24 years old group, for whom degree less important than ‘becoming of age’, nowadays a large part of the learners is older and factors like costs, competences and timing become more important than degrees and socializing.

They see online education as the technological driving force which makes it possible for large amounts of people to get this ‘just-in-time’ education, based on competences at low costs:

online learning offers a natural medium to move forward focusing on competency based measures around what one is actually able to do, about which employers and society at large are actually concerned (p. 45).

One of the major barriers for moving towards a more just-in-time education based on competences is the fact that accrediting agencies reinforce the existing situation, by stressing the importance of research and keeping outsiders that operate differently out of the “club” (p. 46).

As existing organizations will not be able to move down the market; providing less services, but more value at lower cost, Christensen et al. (2011) assume that government agencies and politicians have to ‘open up’ the sector, giving four advices to regulators in the educational sector.

Some critical remarks

A lot of the examples in the 2011-rapport are of for-profit institutions, concentrating on online education or of existing institutions which have transferred their online education towards another ‘business unit’ outside the university.

Lawton and Katsomitros wrote about the failures of ODL (for-profit) organizations, listing the following institutions:

2001 NYUonline (part of New York University)UMUConline (University of Maryland University College)Virtual Temple (Temple University)
2003 Fathom (a high-profile and for-profit elearning portal launched in 2000 and led by Columbia, with Chicago, Michigan, LSE, Cambridge University Press, the American Film Institute, and other partners including the New York Public Library, British Library and a number of museums in London.)
2004 UK’s e-university experiment (UKeU)
2006 AllLearn, a not-for-profit online collaborative venture of Yale, Oxford, and Stanford, which started in 2001, and which more closely resembled the current MOOCs.

So not every alternative educational institute has become a success. Furthermore, although not every academic researcher is a good teacher, every good teacher is capable of translating scientific research into educational materials.

As I have argued elsewhere, a lot of the commercial educational institutes are built around  teaching professors, with a research position in publicly funded institutions. In this way, they can offer education at a cheaper rate as they do not have the investments in research and education of the teaching staff. In this sense Christensen et al. are right in the sense that there are less overhead and complexity costs, as these costs fall upon other institutions.

It is, however, a good approach to determine what society and individual learners really demand from educational institutes. It is a reminder that (academic) education is the translation of new knowledge into learning and competences. Accreditation should take this aspect of education more into account and put lesser emphasis on research activities of educational institutions.

Yet, in my experiences, working at the faculty of Management Sciences of the Open University of the Netherlands, most of my adult students are not only interested in the content of the courses, but also in the certificates of the individual course, to show their employers that they have acquired the essential knowledge. A large group is also interested in the Msc-degree. After some years, in which working experiences determines their career, they encounter some kind of ‘glass ceiling’ as they lack a formal degree.

The message of Christensen et al. is clear: online distance education should be concentrated on education, reducing overhead- and complexity cost. Affordable education, driven by the demand of the learners and society, will disrupt the educational sector; but only when policymakers will create the conditions for these initiatives to be sustainable.

Wirred: Christensen’s napkin


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s