What is Openness in Open Education??

In general, there seems to be a tendency towards openness in society.

Ilustation from Magelia WebStore, https://www.magelia.org

In the sector of Information Technology, we see the Open Software movement, a movement in which people share knowledge, resources and products for free.

The Open Educational Resources movement strives to generate educational resources, which are shared for free (although often developed using subsidies of national governments and private institutions).

In the publishing sector, we see a discussion on Open Access; free access to scientific (subsidized) publication.

In industrial sectors, we see a discussion on Open Innovation (Chesbrough, 2006, de Wit and Meyer, 2014); the idea that most knowledge will be developed outside the firm. New knowledge, necessary for innovations, has to be bought, sold or shared. (Information) Technology increases the possibilities for innovation on a small scale. Sharing of knowledge and resources is a major force behind the MakersMovement, in which small inventors design, prototype and -eventually- distribute their innovative products or services (also see Anderson, 2012).

Wiley (2014) – in his discussion on Moocs – defines openness in education as the transition of ‘open entry’ (in the sense of no entry demands from the Open Universities) towards ‘open licenses’, as in Open Educational Resources (OER), towards a possible  ‘open educational infrastructure’.

Open Universities over the world (generally) accept all kinds of students, independent of the level of former education. Yet, education in this case is not free; students have to pay fees, which can become a barrier despite the formal openness. So did a member of the Open University of the UK argue that it could be seen as a social obligation to set entry tests. Given that students have to pay certain fees, it would be unfair to let them make debts for a couple of years, after which the university concludes that they are not capable of finishing their study.Since the nineties of the last century, several organizations worked on the development and distribution of free educational objects. These objects were termed Open Educational Resources in 2001 by the Unesco (1st Global OER Forum in 2002). This openness is defined over five dimensions (the 5R activities, as defined by the Unesco (2012):

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the work (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • Reuse – the right to use the work in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a web site, in a video)
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the work itself (e.g., translate it into another language)
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised work with other open works to create something new (e.g., incorporate the work into a mash up)
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original work, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the work to someone else)

© Chad Anderson | Dreamstime.com

Another general model of openness is the 5-components model for open education (5COE) of Mulder and Janssen [2013, figure 2]. This model unbundles the different activities into three components on the supply side and two on the demand side.

On the supply side they distinguish:

  1. Open educational resources (OER) 2. Open learning services (OLS): online and virtual activities which are available either free or for payment, including assessments, exams and communities; 3. Open teaching efforts (OTE): all supporting activities as teaching, ict-support and other roles in (distance) teaching; these activities will generally not be free.

On the demand side they describe the following two components:

  1. Open to learners’ needs (OLN): open education should be free in the sense of time, space and tempo; however, it should also be affordable for everyone. 5. Open to employability & capabilities development (OEC): education should be open towards new and changing demands from society and the labour market, but also promote critical thinking, creativity and personal growth .

The unbundling of Janssen and Mulder (2013) had the aim to develop a potential earning model for HEI’s, combining paid activities with the supply of free resources. This was necessary because there was a feeling that the isolated development of open educational resources, as done by MIT (subsidized by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), or Saylor.org (offering whole courses, subsidized by Michael Saylor ( MicroStrategy Inc.)) were too much dependent on the goodwill of a person or foundation.

Others are building on Andersons 2009) Freemium model ). For example, the Free Software Academy, which offers free courses and paid tutoring within accredited programs. The Moocs developed in recent years often use a similar business model.

With respect to the openness of this model two remarks have to be made:

  1. there is a major division between several providers of resources, whether objects or full courses. All are open in the sense that using them to learn or teach is free (costless and no entry barriers), Yet, some do apply all the Unesco R’ s, some only part (both participating under different Creative Commons Copyrights), some are not reusable or adjustable at all. Especially Moocs are static in the sense that they cannot be changed or adjusted to new usage, sometimes new usage is actively discouraged. Furthermore, Most Moocs are only open for a certain period (often the period the same course is given in the original university).
  2. as shown by economic theory, obtaining money for products or services requires the possibility to exclude others from using the service or product. Unbundling to design a business model for open education means to draw a line between activities and products which are open (exchanged for free, but not necessarily costless) and activities which are closed (exclusively available for paying participants). Janssen and Mulder (2013) did use their model to show the possibilities of traditional and open universities to participate in the OER movement. Yet, it can also be used to explain the initial enthusiasm of xxx-investors to participate in the American Mooc-platforms. The expectation was that by offering additional activities, the platforms would generate profits. To guarantee the required exclusivity, participating HEI’s had to sign contracts which restricted their freedom in usage of the material placed with the platform. Data, but also third party contracting (in-company trainings ect.) became the prerogative of the platform.

Christensen et al. (2014) uses a similar approach to forecast a more disruptive development with respect to the (American) educational sector. Distance education, the competence based approach, the existence of high quality, accredited open educational materials offers commercial firms the opportunity to enter the educational sector, aiming at low cost segments and non-consumers (of existing education). According to them, it is only a matter of time before the last bastion of the traditional mixture of academic research and education, the accreditation organizations, will fall.

So unbundling education at an organizational level could result in unbundling at a sectorial or national level and a new division between open en exclusive forms of education.

Wiley (2014) moves openness even one level higher. He sees open education as  an open education infrastructure. With this he means a “set of interconnected structural elements that provide the framework supporting education”.

He concentrates in this on competence-based education. Developing competence profiles and the accompanying programs, techniques and need is costly and complex. By offering open competence programs, more institutions can develop new experiments based on these programs, improve and change the programs, which will feed back in the education of the original developers. Such a process should improve quality and efficiency of CBE-programs and the educational infrastructure. The same applies to assessments. In a CBE-world, knowing the exams will not increase a student’s chances (a reason for secrecy in a the more traditional educational world) as the test are competence based, and will judge performance rather than reproduction. Again, opening up your assessments will improve them by increasing usage, localization and experimentation. Wiley (2014) adds open certification to his open educational structure as a logical step following the definition of competence oriented learning objectives, teaching and learning using open educational resources; being tested through open assessments and using open certificates to show for the acquired competences. Openness of this kind will increase the quality and efficiency of the national educational system.

There are two important distinctions between these approaches. First of all, we can make a distinction between free activities and free products. As Michael Saylor is quoted at the Saylor.org website: Education should be free. Yet, at the website, a lot of courses can be found, however if we define education as the combination of materials, teaching, assessments and feedback, it represents only part of the educational activities.

The same seems to apply to the open education of Wiley (2014). He writes about the exchange of CBE-profiles, open exchange of assessments and alike. However what will be done with these products is not discussed.

The second distinction touches this point. Mulder and Janssen (2013) distinguish between the supply and the demand side. The supply side of the educational system are the teachers and HEI’s offering education to students; competent employees to employers and engaged civilians to society; forming the demand side of the system.

Openness on the supply side seems to concentrate on educational resources, whether teaching materials, assignments or CBE-profiles. The aim of the resources is to support and improve teaching by making materials available, but also stimulating quality through discussion and improvement of existing materials.

Openness on the demand side is about the freedom to participate in education. This is about the removal of entrée barriers. These barriers can be formal (admission restrictions), financial (high fees, large additional costs) or otherwise. The OECD (2014) rapports on tuition fees . These range from non (eg. Austria, Greece, Finland) to € 1950 in the Netherlands. Outside of Europa, the average fees are higher: Canada (approx. 4,000 USD), UK and the USA (approx. 5,000 USD) .

Other barriers, however, may be even more important especially in later-in-life education, as the combination between education and work.

Open education is different from free education; yet in my opinion, openness should be about removing barriers for learners, not only on providing resources for teachers.


Anderson , C., (2009) Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Hyperion

Anderson , C., (2014) Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Crown Business

Chesbrough, H. (2006) Open Business Models, Harvard

Christensen, C. M., M. B. Horn, L.Caldera, & L. Soares, (2011) Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/report/2011/02/08/9034/disrupting-college  (accessed April 4 2013)

Mulder, F.,  B. Janssen (2013, in Dutch) Open (het) onderwijs, Surf Trendrapport, http://www.surf.nl/en/knowledge-and-innovation/knowledge-base/2013/trend-report-open-educational-resources-2013.html (accessed October 2014)

OECD (2014) Education at a Glance, http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2014_eag-2014-en#page1 accessed December 2014.

Unesco (2012), Declaration of  Paris, http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/WPFD2009/English_Declaration.html, retrieved September 30, 2014

Wiley, D.,  (2014), The Open Education Infrastructure, and Why We Must Build It, July 15, 2014, http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3410, accessed December 18, 2014

Wiley, D., (2014), The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure,  July 15, 2014, http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3557 , accessed December 18, 2014

Wit, de B., R. Meyer (2014), an international perspective, 5th edition, Cengage Learning


Disruptive versus destructive innovation: an answer to Paul Prinsloo

I think that the discussion on business models, innovation and disruptiveness will improve as we make a distinction between value and profit, and between disruptive and destructive.

In my opinion, each organization tries to deliver value to the outside world. Whether you supply a product or a service. Whether you aim to earn a profit or are a task oriented organization, someone has to belief your activities.

Whereas profit is the outcome of a monetary transaction, value is created by the usage of the offering: by using a product or using the products which result form a service. It is therefor that in modern marketing the influence of the user or receiver is so important: production determines the characteristics of a product or service, usage determines its value.

A monetary profit is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the realization of value. Learning can add value by increasing a persons competences, by making an organization smarter or a society more egalitarian. Yet it can be very difficult to express these increases in monetary terms, necessary to determine the amount of profit.

Classical oriented economists and politicians will argue that learning will increase a person’s potential future income and that it would be justified that people would pay for their own education. This ignores the positive external effects of this education on the productivity and lives of other members of society, but it also ignores the risks of general economic factors which are as important for the realization of the potential income.

Value does not imply profits, hopefully profits do represent value.

Within the field of innovation, we often speak of Schumpeterian destructive innovation. With that economists indicate that often the creation of new things will result in the replacement of old products and services. Creativity is a source of more productive processes, of more attractive products and better services. A problem is the translation of a creative invention into a sustainable innovation. Frequently, the proof of the superiority of an innovation is backward looking. Economists can give a long list of inventions which were technically superior to other inventions, but did not survive the competition.

Disruption is something else; Christensen defines it as an invention, aimed at non-consumers and the bottom of an existing market. It becomes a successful innovation when it convinces non-consumers to use the product and slowly nibbles at the bottom of the existing market. These kind of innovations are characterized by a negative development: by removing features which are aimed at the upper part of the market, the product or service becomes less complicated and cheaper to produces. This results in a lower price. Both the decline in price as the concentration on the core features of the value offering, non-consumers will be convinced to try the new product.

Christensen predicts that the newcomer will, in time, move upwards in the market; the same propensity explains why the incumbent firms cannot counter the entry of the new firms at the bottom of the market. Given an initial position, existing customers expect the firm to add new features increasing quality and usability for the existing customers. However, this increase in quality will cause the costs of production to rise. It therefore not to be expected that incumbent firms are able to counter the entry of the new firms or even initiate a disruptive innovation in their own market.

Disruption adds additional products to total supply and can turn into a destructive force when the firm moves upwards. Creative destruction will be replacing existing products with superior competitors from the start.

Applying these concepts towards the educational sector, we have to distinguish new alternatives aimed at non-learners and alternatives replacing existing educational supply.

For example, studying physics through Youtube-movies can be inferior to an f2f education in modern laboratories. Yet, for some students it is the only way to study a subject, given their restrictions in terms of location, money or time.

Educational alternatives as Moocs can be disruptive in the sense that they offer non-learners a chance to (re)start an education by removing some of the barriers of traditional education. However, they will not be destructive in the sense that they will replace traditional education as long as they miss some of the essential features as certification and degree awarding. When they move up, for example when a firm uses Moocs as internal trainings programs, they replace part of the traditional education. Yet, they have a long way to go before free educational programs will take the place of traditional education.

(Open) Distance education is potentially more destructive than Moocs. In a world of fragmentation, where people want to find a personal mix of work, learning, personal time, there is a demand for just in time and just in case (formal and informal) learning. The supply determined approach of traditional education does not fit this modern way of life. So an open and creative approach to education could result in forms of education which will replace (destroy) the traditional 16 – 24 years oriented programs.

This depends, as Christensen et al. points out, on the way accreditation institution react. Incumberants will try to influence the quality “eisen”, to protect their own programs. So standaards can act as a barrier to entry, the same as in other sectors.

Soucrce: Christensen et al on disruption of education

So when Paul Prinslo remarks that: “In the context of Unisa, there is also ample evidence that some initiative is launched under the banner of “disruption” and “innovation” without considering the implications and impacts of these ideas on our students, staff and institutional well-being. Some of these also disrupt the core business of the institution to such an extent that the center does not hold, and that several systems cannot cope with the impact. I am OK with the idea of piloting a novel and disruptive idea alongside the main business  and then go big. But there seems to be a believe that starting small is not disruptive enough

I can sympathize with his feelings. Management at the Open university of the Netherlands also has the tendency to start developments that are criticized by the staff and students. I think that the educational sector globally is in a state of flux, ranging from financial problems of institutes to financial problems of students, from having to redefine their mission to dealing with the effects of the economic crises.

Yet, disruptive innovation has become a fashionable management term; sometimes disturbing your organization can be a good thing, often it is not. Organizations benefit from incremental changes. It shows good management: [most of the time] sudden changes indicate that management was not prepared for outside changes; incremental changes towards the new outside conditions give the opportunity to build on the existing competences and change them slowly. When the organization (management and non-management) are incapable to react to new conditions, they leave room for others to come up with creative new modes of education which better fit the new economic and social conditions. These trends could become destructive and replace educations as we know it.

Disruptive innovations are occurring in situations that traditional education ignores the potential group of non-learners increasing research efforts and raising demands on students to meet rising qualifications. The ignored group could become the target of organizations which supply a less complex and cheaper form of education.

Organizations should make a well balanced choice between stakeholders, potential students and competitors before drastically changing their existing business model.

Yet, I belief that especially the open universities of this world offer value to individual students but also to society as a whole by offering a formal education to those who otherwise would not be capable to increase their knowledge, be it a single course to increase their knowledge on a single subject, by taking several courses as lifelong learning or taking a full program as a second chance to education!!

And because a new version of something old can be beautiful:

(the original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaVDXyXqI9Q)

Disruptive innovation discredited? A personal assessment of the discussion.

The question posed by John Naughton in the Guardian is:

Clayton M Christensen’s theory of ‘disruption’ has been debunked. Can we all move on now, please?

He refers to a contribution of Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, titled The Disruption Machine. In both articles, the theory of disruption is attacked at three levels:

  • a historical level: starting with the initial meaning of the word innovation, a discussion whether “creative destruction”  equals “destructive innovation”, and some relationship between ‘the age of terror’ and the popularity of destructive innovation;
  • a critique of the case study method used by Christensen and others to support their theory; accordng to Naughton and Lepore the used definitions of success and innovation are crucial in the support of the theory by the cases. Another critique is the fact that if the chosen time horizon is longer, successful examples fail, whereas failling firms become succesfull in time.
  • not only in retrospective does the theory fail, accourding to the authors, the theory also fails to provide reliable predictions. Some investment fund of Christensen did not live up to expectations, several cases are described, in which the theory did not provide the right predictions.

Of course both Christensen (interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20, 2014) as his co-author (The Innovator’s Solution) Raynor (Of waves and ripples: Disruption theory’s newest critic tries to make a splash, Deloitte University Press) did react to these critical remarks.Christensen is quoted by Drake Bennet to have said:

And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways. In fact, every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.

Raynor uses a 13-pages paper to react. If we leave the historical and semantic discussions aside, the major defense is on the case study method used. Both Raynor and Christensen point out that positions shift over time, so the different cases selected by Lepore and Naughton have to be understood in their specific market position at that point in time; providing new case studies. Also, the predictive value of the theory is a question of timing and good interpretation.

For example Christensen says:

Just so you understand, disruption doesn’t happen overnight. There are now six or eight traditional department stores in existence in North America. Let’s just call it less than 10. And Walmart is quite a large company. Target is quite a big company. So has disruption been at work in the retailing industry? It’s a question. Macy’s still exists. So—Jill, tell me, what’s the truth? If you could just be Jill’s answer for me.

Raynor also takes the Kmart example, stating:

To claim that Kmart was not a successful disruptor because it is no longer a disruptor is like claiming Carl Lewis was not a champion sprinter because he is not now a champion sprinter.

From: http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Disruptive%20Innovation

With respect to the falsifiability of the theory, Raynor points out that several cases indeed follow the theory:

Case studies are extraordinarily useful when developing theory and limning a theory’s limits. Case studies establish a theory’s descriptive validity (there is such a thing as a disruptive path to success) and its explanatory power (here is why it works). Case studies cannot test a theory’s predictive power when a theory makes probabilistic predictions. That requires a statistically valid test of a theory’s accuracy on a population. Complaining that Christensen has not proved the predictive power of disruption based on case studies is to miss this critical distinction between two completely different methods, each attuned to a very different need.

Therefore, I would like to rephrase the question with which we started this blog:

Is there a general theory of business economics?

Much of the discussion above centers on the validity of the case study method and the generalization of the theory of destructive innovation. If I may take two (handpicked, quoting Lepore) examples:

  1. Retailers, quality and price fighters.

In line with the examples given by Christensen and Raynor, several stages can be distinguished in the development of shops: Until 1948 small specialized shops dominated the market. More general oriented shops took over the market for retailers, but from the 1960’s on the large chains of supermarkets controlled the market. In the 1990’s two price fighters entered the supermarket segment. Lowering services and prices they captured a stable part of the market. The existing supermarkets tried to introduce so-called ‘own brands’ and C-brand products, but were hindered by the large overheads and fixed costs to really compete in the lower parts of the market.

Now, twenty years later, the former price fighters move upmarket offering A-branch products and specialized products. Other price fighters are competing at the low price part of the retail market.

Some conclusions, which are consistent with the theory of disruptive innovation:

–          Established firms have difficulty with combining different business models within one organization (cq shop);

–          Established price fighters move upwards in the market, imitating the old firms;

–          New disruptive firms will emerge and the old disruptive firms will have the same difficulties to compete as the firms they pushed upwards in the market.

 2. Airlines: KLM, Transavia and Ryanair.

Last week KLM had to warn the shareholders that the expected profits of KLM and Transavia have to be adjusted downwards. Transavia, is a Dutch based low-cost airline operating as an independent part of the Air France-KLM group, bought in 1991 as answer to the treat of the disruptive treat of pricefighters as Ryanair and Easyjet.

At the same time rumors indicated that Airbus, after Ryanair’s proposal to have passengers on short flights standing up, was developing new chairs doubling the capacity of the airplanes.



With this example, we illustrate two mechanisms from the theory of disruptive innovation:

–          It is not easy to find a way for established firms to copy and counter the business strategy of the disrupting entrant.

–          That disrupting firms can evolve and keep disrupting the market, contraire to the theory of Christensen and Raynor.

The two examples can be criticized of being “handpicked” and being too shallow to describe the full complexity of the cases; both true!

Yet the point we want to make is exactly that: in different situations, different components of the theory are supported. Instead of quarreling over the historical interpretation of the word innovation, what is the truth or if IBM still makes a profit or not, other questions should be asked, for example:

1. Which kind of innovations are there and what are their relative importance in survival of firms?

2. Why do we see different trends and reactions in different case studies: what are critical success factors for entrants and established firms?

3. What is the effect on social welfare of a successful disruptive innovation? Should we try to increase the speed of these kind of innovation, or try to stop it?


Lastly, a critique on the way which Lepore tries to protect education and health care from Christensen disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation cannot play a part in these sectors, according to Lepore, because:

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors. Historically, institutions like museums, hospitals, schools, and universities have been supported by patronage, donations made by individuals or funding from church or state. The press has generally supported itself by charging subscribers and selling advertising. (Underwriting by corporations and foundations is a funding source of more recent vintage.) Charging for admission, membership, subscriptions and, for some, earning profits are similarities these institutions have with businesses. Still, that doesn’t make them industries, which turn things into commodities and sell them for gain.

She totally misses the point of the application of business economics to these sectors. Readers leave the traditional media, turning to the free information available on the internet, students turn to Moocs, discussion groups and peer pages to find the information they need to learn, patients lookup success-ratios of doctors, choosing the best. Governments have financial difficulties, making choses about what to finance, people and institutions which donate are becoming more critical. Right or wrong, the customization of society is increased by the possibilities of the internet and social media.

Doctors, teachers, journalists and perhaps even priests have to take the preferences of their public into account. Of course, people are still restricted by their budgets, by their social class, by their networks, like before; but loyalty has declined and partly replaced by economic trade-offs.

This makes strategic analyses of the offering of an institution versus the wishes of the purchaser even more important.

Value, effort and education.

Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends. Benjamin Disraeli

Value, effort…………

In modern business economics, there is a realization that is not so much the organization which creates value, but the organization makes an value offer and the realization of this is in the usage of the product or service by the customer.

In traditional approaches (as still in can be seen in the tax system: taxes on value added), when inputs are transformed during each sequential stage, the efforts of the firm are seen as adding value to the product. Taxes are levied on this effort, measured by the costs of the labour and capital used.

In the transformation of grain into bread, the labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker are seen to increase the value and so the price of the outputs. Yet, if the bread is not sold and thrown away at the end of the day, does all this labour add to the welfare of society? The realization of the potential value in the offering is the appreciation of the customer, in the case of bread this is shown by the price paid for the bread. This appreciation will be different in different situations. In countries with a shortage of foods, a simple bread will be sold, whereas in countries with a lot of possible substitutes, simple bread will not be valued highly. Doubling the inputs (efforts), without changing the quality or characteristics of the bread will not increase the value.

More difficult is it to determine the value of art. However,it should be clear that it is not the level of effort which determines the fact if something is valued as a work of art. Yet, the reverse is -of course- not true: most artistic work will require hard work. Thinking about the way the artistic level of something could be determined, I think it is not the price paid on the free market, or the opinion of experts but the effort of people to preserve it. At least, the efforts and costs invested in preserving art over the centuries is a better approximation of the value for society, than the money invested in making the object itself.

From The Picture of Dorian Gray

…………………….  And Education   We see different trends appearing at this time:

  1. The success of Moocs, measured in participation,
  2. The expectation that (commercial) distance education providers will have a destructive influence on the sector as described by Christensen and others, and
  3. The financial problems of different governments, where the examples of California and Greece show that education is one of the first sectors which will suffer.

The success of the Moocs can be interpreted in different ways:

  1. As a rise in demand for education which is not supported by a rise in income;
  2. A demand for training increased in the last years due to the economic crisis.

Related to the success of the Moocs is the concept of disruptive innovations as used to forecast developments in American education by Christensen and others. The success is partly explained by the price (free for Moocs). The prices for education will decline because of the separation of research and teaching: concentration on key activities being a central theme in disruptive innovation. The idea of cheaper or even free education is, of course, attractive to governments which have budgetary problems. Especially when education is not a top priority for local and national governments with liquidity problems. To summarize, learners and financers of education substitute traditional education for cheaper and free alternatives, a tendency which only will become stronger according to Christensen and others. In terms of the new business economics as described above, the key stakeholders in education refuse to create the value, offered by the efforts of the educators. Rephrasing this, the value offer of the educational institutes may not be acceptable or affordable for the stakeholders. The value of education is determined by the usage by the learners of the learned competences and knowledge. In general, we can distinguish two extreme approaches to the effects of education.

1.  At one side of the spectrum, education is seen as an important factor increasing social cohesion, democratic participation and (economic) welfare. For example, the European Union writes in the evaluation of the Lisbon Agenda:

Underlying this was the realisation that, in order to enhance its standard of living and sustain its unique social model, the EU needed to increase its productivity and competitiveness in the face of ever fiercer global competition, technological change and an ageing population.[..] These ambitious targets could only be achieved through structural reforms to tackle a number of challenges within Europe’s labour markets; tackling labour market segmentation, addressing skill needs through more and better education and training, promoting a lifecycle approach to active ageing, and inclusive labour markets. […]Education and skills policy is at the heart of creating a knowledge-based economy, but it is apparent that the EU has some way to travel in this regard.

2.  The approach on the other side of the spectrum emphasis the economic effects, especially for the individual who becomes more competent. Education, in this view, primarily produces individuals which are more competent in their work, increasing employment by a better fit between demand and supply in the labour market. More productive workers will earn a higher income and firms will earn their firm an additional profit.

In the second view, employers, employees and learners are primarily responsible for financing education as the value will only partly crystallize in the form of additional income for the learner and the employers. The broader approach of education puts part of the responsibility with society: government has incentives to finance at least the general competences of the learners, through educational subsidies. Again, effort will determine quality but rise costs, but when demand shifts to other alternatives, much of the effort will be lost. Problem with disruptive tendencies in the sense of Christensen et al. is the “catch-22” between costs and demand, which results from the move towards quality which is the standard response of all organizations in these situations. Traditional education wants to take its social responsibility, teaching collective social competences next to functional content based on research efforts. However, if society doesn’t want or can pay for this kind of education, it will end up with purely functional education, paid for by employers and employees and aimed totally to an efficient fulfilment of jobs and the furthering of individual careers.

Educating the bottom of the pyramid or of the market: the difference between Prahalad and Christensen

On first sight, the approaches of Prahalad (bottom of the pyramid) and Christensen (disruptive innovation) seem very similar. New firms offer products with less functionality at lower prices, making the products affordable for more customers, especially those with lower incomes.

It is even so that firms who aim for the bottom of the pyramid will be disruptive in their market in the sense that their new offerings will replace the old products and so the old firms.

 However, at a more fundamental level both approaches differ substantially from each other. Prahalad tries to combine social responsibility, capitalism and social welfare in a sustainable way. By producing for the millions, a small profit rate can generate enough absolute profits for a sustainable development of the firm.

Christensen describes a situation in which small firms are able to offer a product of a lesser quality for a lower price to both existing and new customers. By offering less functionalities and a lower technological quality they attack the lower end of the market, where the profit rates for the existing firms is lowest. Yet, when the last of the high-cost high-price firms has left this segment, competition will drive the price towards its zero-profit level. This will induce the low-cost firms to innovate their products, adding quality and functionalities, and attacking the new bottom of the market. This process will be continuing until the top of the market has become the new bottom.

[For non-economists: Profits is often used in several ways; here Prahalad uses the word profits for the income of the firms; at the zero-profit level of Christensen, firms have a 'normal' level of income; so not to worry, no people starve because of this kind of competition]

I see the same fundamental difference in the approach to Open Education. People and institutes involved in the production, distribution and research of Open Educational Resources do this because they see a linkage between social responsibility, welfare and offering education towards people whose access is financially or otherwise restricted.

Business models for OER are conducted in line with the approach of Prahalad. Given the need for free education for the bottom of the pyramid, how can this be organized in a sustainable way? This concentrates not only on the kind of earning models, but especially on efficient ways of production and organization.


Other initiatives, as Moocs and the online offerings of for-profit educational institutes, have explicit earning models. For example, most Mooc-platforms have contracts which contain regulations about the usage of the courses in commercial settings, about the usage of learning data or about future income selling student data to prospecting employers. For-profit institutions see students as customers, stripping all academic overheads, making the student an offering which is inferior in the eyes of the traditional educational sector, but sufficient in the eyes of the potential student.

This could induce a disruptive development, in which the Moocs and for-profit institutions move upmarket; each time segmenting the market more by offering the lowest quality at the lowest price, adding to this with an increasing price until they replace the traditional institutions.


Problem is that once offerings move from the not-for-profit towards the for-profit sector, the price mechanism will not automatically take negative externalities into account. Political agencies which set the goals for not-for profit institutions often take into account other goals. In the case of educational institutions, not only the direct effect on the carrier of the students, but also on social welfare and the relationship between research, education and economic and social growth.

One actual effect can be seen: for-profit institutions which concentrate solely on education can offer educational programs at fees which are below the fees of traditional institutions. One of the reasons for this is the fact that they have lower cost as they have not to pay for the investment in new knowledge (research). Often they work with part-time teachers, who gather their knowledge elsewhere. By acting in this way, for-profit institutions forego both direct research costs and indirect coordination costs.

Assuming education has major positive external effects on general welfare. Most functions associated with these effects will be removed as part of the reduction in quality which is part of the disruptive tendency as described by Christensen and others. In this sense, disruption of education is one of the worse things which could happen to a creative competitive society.

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