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.

Education, let’s blow it to bits or put it back?

At the end of the last century some business theorists saw the start of a new development. The combination of technological change and an increasing competition between firms would result in a concentration on the core competencies of firms. This has two results: every firm concentrates on the tings they do best. Survivors of the competition will produce the best for the lowest costs. If every firm does so, and the B2B system is organized well, customers get the best quality for the lowest prices.

Of course, recent years showed a mixed pattern. Concentration in the banking sector, combining different financial products and services within one organization, ignoring the specific competencies necessary (including control and organization) is one of the causes  of the financial crisis. Yet, as result of this crisis, we see an increase in start-ups, employee-buy-outs and the emergence of other forms of small enterprises.

It would be interesting to see what the industry triggers are which rule concentration versus fragmentation, but also success versus failure in the different industries.

Technological change and didactic experiments have broadened the variation of digital education with the introduction of Open Educational Resources and Moocs.

In line with commercial business we have seen two trends emerging.

So let’s blow it to bits ………………………

One trend is shared by economists as Christensen and educational managers as Fred Mulder (UNESCO-chair OER). Both envisage a division within the academical sector. Christensen sees a division between research and education as a disruptive factor in the educational sector. E-learning provides a vehicle for the emergency of low costs mass education provided by organizations which concentrate on the educational process, without the burden of academic research.

Mulder goes one step further, in dividing the educational process in different stages and services. He concentrates on the division between content, which should be offered as open educational resources, and services as tutoring and grading, which should form the base of organizational income.

** Added 13-02-14: As pointed out by Ben Janssen as a comment to this post, he and Fred Mulder stop here with their analyses (also see their chapter Opening up education in Trend Report: Open Educational Resources 2013). The next text is my augmentation of their arguments, not their reasoning.**

However, if different products and services within the educational sector can be offered using different business models, there is no reason why they should take place within the same organization. If all organizations concentrate on the activities which they do best (making materials (Moocs or otherwise), tutoring, grading), the combination, the fragmented model, should produce the best and most effective and efficient education possible.

Both the individual student as society as a whole will gain as education becomes more affordable, public subsidies can decrease and quality increases. Christensen, therefore, concludes his paper with a set of advises for the public sector to realize the predicted benefits.

Of course there can be several drawbacks: in the age-group of 12 – 24 education is also about socialization, which is absent in the fragmented model. Also, there can be a discussion if academic education is possible without fundamental research; although the best researchers are not necessary the best teachers. Lastly, the advantages of the fragmented model ignore so-called transaction costs. Students have to select the best teaching organization and grading institute, but also the best combination of those two. Teaching organizations have to search for information on the grading requirements and the best (open) educational resources. The government has to inspect and accredit several institutes. In contrast to Open educational resources and Moocs, the workings of the open market are not free.

Or put it back …………………………………….

Another aspect of the fragmentation into core-competence organizations is the need to cooperate. This cooperation can result either of a spontaneous organization, as we know of complex dynamics, or it can be the result of an intermediary organization. For example, Laura Czerniewicz sees as one of the reasons to be engaged with Moocs is the fact that it  “gives us an entry to talking about online learning …. with people with whom we have not had those conversations before” and  there is room to “experiment”  with new online materials.

From: http://www.workingpoint.com/blog/free-tools-for-entrepreneurs-collaboration/3591

Another interesting point Laura makes is that there is room for niche subjects. As Anderson has pointed out in his theory of the Long Tail, is that small percentages of the total demand can generate large numbers when the materials are available electronically and world wide. Some courses cannot be organized because of the lack of local students. If different organizations work together, they can combine the local interest into a sustainable (inter)national group of students. The same can be done in the case of to few qualified teachers on a special subject: by using the new technologies it should be possible to teach in different locations without extensive travel.

Again using the conclusions of research in the field of business co-operations, an interesting phenomena is that firms who compete heavily on the consumer side, will cooperate at the backdoor. For example, beer companies do their best to convince you that their beer is the best fitting with your life style, is the cheapest or the best quality. However, in most Western European countries all beer is sold in the same bottles and crates as the distribution and retribution of the bottles is organized together.

Question for educational organization is: what do you want to be? What is the identity you try to communicate towards your students? Given this strategic identity, you can determine your core competencies and resources. You can also determine all the non-core activities and resources.

These are the things which could be outsourced or developed in a common program. Courses like mathematics, statistics or English are often just secondary to the major program, international business, European law or psychology. Resources which could be freed by cooperation with other organizations could be used to enhance the strategic profile.

To me, working together to improve the quality and efficiency of education on a international scale seems a more interesting perspective than decreasing our organizations into atomic cores which orbit the potential students without any sense of curricula or programs; being totally dependent on the authority of some external agent who sets the requirements for a degree. Yet, if education is left to the open market either because of the ruling ideology or because of the lack of public funding, there is no guarantee that cooperation will overcome competition.

Why business models in education matter

Again, and again teachers rightfully state that there is no reason why they should take into account the business model of their course. However, on an institutional scale a business model describes the way an organization defines itself. It is not only an earning model: describing the earnings versus the costs, determining the net income of the organization.
The business model also contains collaborations, essential activities and processes and core competencies. By defining the organization in this way shows clearly what the organization sees as its raison d’être, its competitive position in regard to other institutions and organizations.

The individual teacher teaching a class in Latin may not be interested in the fact that her investment in offering an interesting program is only attended by small groups of students. At an administration level of the university, however, the imbalance between the costs of providing the class and the income generated through direct student fees and governmental subsidies. This imbalance and the financial long term effect of it can be fed back to the individual teacher, providing an incentive to change the way of teaching. In this case, sharing with other teachers over universities could be an answer to the investment costs (eq. through virtual classes, by video appearances). Yet, another measurement taken could be to when the institution sees this course as essential for its identity and does not want to share it with others. In that case, funds will be made available for teaching regardless financial shortages. An intermediary way could be to support the teacher to develop materials which could reduce the actual f2f time by offering online materials.

All these actions (innovative or conservative) require an understanding of the business model of the institution:
– why would we invest in innovation in our present education: this requires a view on the strategy of the institution and on the values of the stakeholders;
– will we cooperate and who are our partners, con-colleagues or co-creators?

A good business model can help in three ways: (1) analyses the present activities: are we still creating value for the present students and other stakeholders? (2) Given our strategic targets, are our activities still in line with these targets? (3) Given the wish for change, what does that mean for our activities, competences and partnerships?

Especially in education were the situation is complex as the stakeholder who provides the finances is not the same as the one who receives the education. Is education the service provided (towards the individual student) or is it the student with a degree who is delivered towards society? Another complicating factor is the interaction between the different business models for research, teaching, valorization and other activities as employed at HE institutions.

Again, a business model without a clear strategy or vision on the organization is like having a roadmap without a destination. If we know what we want to do for who; the next thing is to determine how and when. Describing the different business models could give an internal consistency on each major activity, but also show interdependencies and conflicts between the different business models.

Inside in the business model of an organization will stimulate innovation in a broader sense than only technology or demand driven. By aligning the demands of the stakeholders with the possibilities of the organization, possible improvements can be identified, raising the value for stakeholders, whether students, teachers, governments or society at large.

This should not mean that governments should control either content or methods of teaching, that administrations should make profits the main driver of education, but it isn’t a carte blanche for teachers to use unlimited resources in their teachings.
The acceptance of reciprocal interests and interdependencies should lead to an innovative mixture of alternative financing of new interesting teaching methods.

Education Changemakers: Business Models Matter http://marscommons.marsdd.com/business-models-matter/

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

Audrey Watters on History: Intermezzo

In this shorter piece, I want to express my support with Audrey Watters. In het blog [Expletive Deleted] Ed-tech #Edinnovation, she reacts to what she describes as Wikiality or truth by consensus rather than by fact.

[gigya src=”http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:video:colbertnation.com:72347″ width=”550″ height=”400″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” wmode=”window” allowFullscreen=”true” flashvars=”autoPlay=false” allowscriptaccess=”always” allownetworking=”all” bgcolor=”#000000″]

Watters quotes Khan, who gives a description in which noting changes between 1892 and 2010: “static to the present day”.

Having written on the pre-academic educational systems in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany I understand why colleagues in this field will sigh and wish it to be true. I don’t know how education changed (or not) outside Europe, but here we have had a movement from knowledge towards competences and back. The changes in pedagogical techniques were accompanied by almost yearly system changes. A report of the Dutch Tweede Kamer concluded in 2008 that much risks were taken.

Yet, as we have seen often enough, history is (re)written by the victors. I agree with Watters that it is shamefully that pioneers like Wiley, Downes and Siemens are not given the credits they earn. But beyond the earning of Noble prices for education, I’m worried about the future. The original designers of Moocs and OER are interested in the distribution of free materials, in offering new opportunities to learners. The modern suppliers of Moocs, as Khan, Koller and Ng or Thun seem to have different models in mind. Being externally financed start-ups, they will have to deliver a return on investment in time. Question is if the winner will take all?

Lenin with Trotsky

Lenin without Trotsky: rewritten history
















Part of the discussion in Wikipedia – Moocs:

Early MOOCs [edit]

The opening paragraph of this section makes the claim that “David Wiley taught what ostensibly was the first MOOC, or proto-MOOC, at Utah State University in August 2007.” There is no reference for this, and the description is simply of a free course that was open to people around the world. This, by itself, does not make it a MOOC. And, if that description is enough for it to be taken as a MOOC, then it certainly does not make it the first. (Using a meaningless concept such as “proto-MOOC” could apply to any form of web-based instruction.) For the statement to be taken seriously, far more independent information and references need to be supplied, otherwise it smacks of someone retrospectively laying claim to something, and should be removed. Kmasters0 (talk) 17:07, 6 November 2012 (UTC)

Removal of Paragraph [edit]

It has been three weeks since I suggested that this paragraph be removed, and there have been no arguments against it. I have removed it, but have copied here, so that, if there is a valid counter-argument (see points above), it can be restored:

David Wiley taught what ostensibly was the first MOOC, or proto-MOOC, at Utah State University in August 2007. This was a graduate course in open education that was opened to participation by anyone around the world. What would otherwise have been a class of only five graduate students became a group of over 50 people in eight countries.

Kmasters0 (talk) 12:27, 27 November 2012 (UTC)

I suggest in the future, when questioning content, you also:

put a {{Cn-span|text=}} around the content in question.

make a good-faith effort to contact the editor(s) who added it, and any who made substantial changes to it. (You didn’t mention doing this above.)

refrain from making uncited comments like “, otherwise it smacks of someone retrospectively laying claim to something, and should be removed”. It takes away from the other points you made, creates bad will with other editors, and smacks of disdain for other editors.

Yours for a better encyclopedia.Lentower (talk) 15:50, 27 November 2012 (UTC)

Yes, you’re right – I apologise. I really meant to note that, as it stood without a reference, it could look like this claim, and would be open to accusations of that; I wasn’t trying to say that was the case, but I can see how it could be read that way. Sorry, no disrespect intended. Kmasters0 (talk) 10:11, 28 November 2012 (UTC)

The reason the Wiley course was in the article was that it was referenced as an influence by both George Siemens and myself in our creation of the first MOOC.For example, I cite it in ‘The MOOC Guide’ which a reference of early MOOCs – see https://sites.google.com/site/themoocguide/ I would recommend reinserting it.

Downes 18 April 2013

Torrents and Moocs: the paradox of sharing

Time was too short to write a blog last week. To the why I will return later in this blog.

Sometimes things take some time before you make certain combinations. A few weeks ago I saw a documentary over the process against the people of the Pirate Bay in Sweden: the Pirate Bay away from key board.


The last week I was working on a paper, with a colleague of mine, concerning the effects of Moocs on Higher Education: are they disruptive or not?  And suddenly, I am thinking about this paradox between Torrents and Moocs.

People invest in making things, physical or virtual objects. Growth theory tells us that property rights are very important for innovations. Given that

  • most inventions never will become more than a nice idea in the laboratory and
  •  that between the state of creativity and a commercially interesting innovation the organizations has to spend a lot of money,

it is clear that organizations have to earn a lot of money to pay back for all those investments.

So -according to the theory- this earn back period depends on the time  an organization can protect its product or service from becoming replaced by cheaper copy cats. Hence the importance of property rights.

This paradigm is adjusted in recent years, both in practice as in theory. Open innovation still builds on solid property rights but sees a lot of wasting resources because of the closed approach to research and innovation. In practice there are firms who decide against the long period of patenting their inventions, stating that the patenting process in itself increases the possibilities of competing copies and results in losing valuable marketing time (move fast before they catch up).

Yet, the entertainment sector still bases itself on the old growth paradigm. They point to the investments of artist and producers to develop books, music and movies; things that can be digitalized and copies. An interesting exception are paintings. There is a whole industry offering Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and nobody is treating to shut down my printer if I make a color print of a picture of the Rijkswacht of Rembrandt.

However, exchange of digital copies of other artistic products will result in a world where no movies are made, no books will be written and no original music will be composed.

There is something strange with respect to this attitude. When I buy a book or a cd, all rights are mine; I can resell them, give them away or donate them for a good cause. There are even organizations who buy books and leave them in trains and other public places. I can make copies for “home-use” and share those with friends. Sharing in this sense is seen as something good and socially desirable behavior. However, when I buy an electronic book, I can only resell it if I read it online at Amozone.com who put it in a vault. When I resell it, it is not the book I sell, but the combination of this vault. I have the feeling that when I buy something digitalized, I never become the owner but will always rent it in some way. Let alone that people should share on a larger scale, using P2P networks (Pirate Bay) or hosting sites (as Megaupload). The movie about the process against the Pirate Bay shows that the vision of the South Park creators is more than fiction.

So sharing with a small group of people is good, but sharing with a lot of people is bad!! At least that is the message as I read it in the behavior of society with respect to internet organizations who facilitate mega-sharing.

Yet, in the past year, I read nothing but good words about teachers, institutions and foundations who facilitate the free mass sharing of knowledge and education. Of course there are discussions on the motives and the pedagogical models, c- versus x-, definitions of free, gratis versus available and so on. Yet there is a consensus to the fact that free education perhaps not will change higher education, but at least will raise the quality with decreasing costs. The newest hype being Moocs because massive is good adn efficient. So in education Sharing is good, Big Sharing is better!

Why does society feels that big sharing in some ways is bad, whereas it is desirable in other situations? Could it be that developing (good) education does not require investments; perhaps the fact that Moocs build on existing courses and that the ‘putting online’ does require such small sums that these small sums disappear in the larger budgets of universities? Yet 55 % of the Mooc-teaching professors indicate that these activities significantly competes with other activities.

Another explanation can be that the suppliers of the Moocs are different from the owners of education; as I described elsewhere the motives of individuals to participate in OER can be different from those of the institutions involved. So a professor can offer a Mooc because he thinks that his materials are not worth anything elsewhere, or for reputational reasons; organizations often participate because of the additional subsidies, marketing reasons or as part of their corporate governance.

Partly this is recognizable, offering a successful Mooc is good for your professional reputation. Yet, most Moocs contain specially for the Mooc developed materials, no rerun of old presentations and recorded colleges. The participating institutions put a lot of effort in the presentation of the Moocs, not only because of marketing reasons. There are a lot of ideas of potential future business models including providing additional services, selling programs for in company trainings and selling the information about the Mooc-participants. So, the Mooc institutions resemble modern day pop groups who offer (part of) their songs for free at the internet because they decided that their earning potentials are in other areas as life performances or fan goods.

http://www.economist.com/node/21552574In the same sense, publications in the form of double blind peer reviewed articles, published in closed journals are seen as of a greater academic value than blogs, columns or contributions to free journals. Also, in this sense free is a disqualification, synonym to bad quality. Perhaps scientific publications have to undergo a disruptive shock, just like education.

Moocs, education from service to product and back.

At this moment, all kinds of enterprises experiment with the change of “Product Dominant Logic” towards Service Dominant Logic”.  Value creation is seen in the usage of a product, which implies that the interaction between supplier and consumer becomes more important. We don’t sell simple products anymore, but the product is part of a consumer-experience and the firm accommodates this experience. Products become services and customers co-creators, interaction becoming a major competitive force.

In education, however, we see an opposite movement. Distance learning, whether open or not, involves the translation of the didactical interaction, the presentation of the content and the experiences of the teacher into an electronic product, which could be uses independent of the individuals who made the online course. Again, because of the required quality and completeness of the course materials, a good online distance course will be much more expensive to develop than a face-to-face course. The quality and completeness are requirements which follow from the fact that the student should be allowed to study most of this material independently from tutors or peers.

By packaging the teacher into an electronic self-sufficient educational product, education moves from a service orientated sector towards a product orientated sector. In a sense it is showing a shift seen before in the performing arts. Baumol showed that labor productivity did not rise for a long time in performing arts; a performance of King Lear did require a standard amount of actors and the amount of spectators was constrained by the physical possibilities (space and time); leaving the ration spectators/actors roughly constant. However, through movies, television and –later- internet made it possible that the same performance was seen by millions of people, over and over again. So this altered the ratio spectators/actors largely, reducing the costs per spectator to almost nil.

The same applies for ODL: whereas production costs are above the development of face-to-face education, once the product is available, the delivery costs depend largely on the amount of students interested in the course. So if the course becomes Massive in usage, the delivery costs will go towards zero, justifying a free and open supply of online courses. In this sense, ODL is the answer to stagnating marginal labor costs in education and the logical  way to increase total factor productivity through capital intensive innovations.

The declining marginal costs do not solve the problem of covering the initial cost of development. At this moment there are three models developed to cover these costs:

  • Institutions bear the costs themselves for different reasons: for example marketing motives, the universities as MIT and the OU-UK who were frontrunners in OER reported on the rise in new students; others invest in potential future earnings by selling the program to third parties.
  • Institutions and the participating individuals use materials which are developed in a different context(regular programs) for which is paid by students and the government thereby reducing   the investment in ODL or Mooc.
  • Several governments and private foundations funded initiatives in the OER-movement; for example the Hewitt foundation, the Gates foundation and at present the Obama administration.

Of course, institutions do combine the three sources of funding to reach an optimal solution. The shift from education as interaction towards education as a product does not only provide the possibilities for a commercialization of education, this shift is expected to generate new sources of income, as described by different authors [ 1, 2].

In line with the Bottom of the pyramid –approach of Prahalad and the Blue-Red Ocean approach Kim and Mauborgne Moocs are the ultimate version of this development: strip your product of every unnecessary feature, leaving the bare supply which meets the demands of the customer. The decline in costs (and price) will make the product widely available, reaching customer segments comparable products will not.

This commoditization of products results in a downward spiral, were competition brings down prices and quality in a shark infested ocean, coloring the water red as only “the strongest survive”. Yet, several thinkers have suggested a way out of this situation. By moving from the commodity towards an experience, seeing a service instead of a product, firms can add unique features to their product offerings.

It is interesting to notice that what took the private sectors decennia to develop, is adapted by the educational sector within two years. Fred Mulder, the Unesco-chair on open educational resources,  proposed a system in which the content was separated from other educational features as tutoring, assessment and  certificates; describing a kind of Mooc before it really existed, but also foreseeing that independent sustainability requires additional sources of income. Thomas Friedman implicitly describes the flipped class room:

Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor. There seemed to be a strong consensus that this “blended model” combining online lectures with a teacher-led classroom experience was the ideal.

In these approaches Moocs become a kind of electronic text book, used by others in their education. It will become a matter of time for the suppliers of the Moocs to ask a contribution of either the students or the institutions which make use of their materials. Yet, if this is the only contribution of Moocs to education, this is hardly to be called disruptive.

In several publications, we can see that Coursera, edX and Udacity are thinking about alternative earning models. These models all involve some kind of service to accompany the electronic lessons within the Mooc.  So in this sense, Moocs are no disruptive innovation, nor a treat to traditional education. However, Moocs can be a change agent in the sense that they facilitate educational innovations as flipping the classroom, integrating learning and working or stimulating quality (why sit through a boring class when you can take the content from a first degree university or teacher).

Also do Moocs open up education for people who otherwise would not be in a position to attend classes. This will, however, depend on two factors:

  1. The attitude of employers to free online courses; will they have a civil effect or will employers still hold onto official degrees?
  2. Openness in Moocs should be redefined not only in terms of barriers of entry, but also in the availability of the course over the year.

Within two years, Moocs become full circle. From a publicly founded service related activity (education) towards to a free product orientated electronic course, a commodity; towards a privately funded experience by adding exclusive services to the free commodity.