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

ODL, the social contract and the economic crisis.

Suddenly a social contract appears in the blogs I am reading. In “The Perfect Storm for Universities“, Popenici writes about the fact that more education does not necessary means a higher income or more change of a steady job. Bonnie Stewart states that the social contract can no longer fulfill its promises. Adding “Of course” to this sentence. Prinsloo lists the assumptions and links between Bildung, graduation and employment which are replaced by other forms of curriculum development, assessment and accreditation, as one of the major changes of 2012. 

Respecting the differences between the blogs, they all blame education for the break down of this relationship. Either the appearance of Moocs and the Internet flow of information (Stewart, Prinsloo) or the student loans, a business attitude of university administration and faculty and the arrogance of universities in general (Popenici). Or taking a quote of Christine Teelken: It seems that universities are no longer viewed as ivory towers of intellectual pursuits and truthful thoughts, but rather as enterprises driven by arrogant individuals out or capture as much money and influence as possible.

However, a contract is a two-sided agreement, depending on certain conditions. This social contract states that if the individual does his best to get explicit grades and diploma’ s, society will take care of his or her employment. One of the conditions attacked is the state of education, which is either bad or treated by ODL‘s as Moocs. Neither of them talks about the other conditions. In Europe as in the USA, there are only a few jobs available. Because of the credit- and the euro-crisis, because of the decline in competitiveness, the social contract has been broken, not necessary because of the rise in alternative sources of information and education.

If online distance learning (ODL) is not the source of the problem, perhaps they can be (part of) the solution? ODL’s, whether open educational resources aimed at teachers (reusable, remix and redistribution) or open online courses aimed at learners (and massive if successful).

In a world where income and employment decline, the access of education is limited as the example of Greece shows. Free resources and courses could help to overcome the scarcity of materials and teachers.

As one of the reasons to be involved in the production of open educational resources, the Unesco reports on the Russian Federation and China state the availability of good quality materials in distance parts of the countries, in Brazil availability over income groups is also mentioned.

Another reason for introducing ODL in a large scale in traditional education is given by Stephan Ruth. Combining different models of ODL (Mooc’s, course redesign using e-learning, virtual campus, the $10,000 degree), he concludes that e-learning can greatly decrease the costs of education. He therefore comes to a combination of models, the Export Import Model, in which the excellent universities offer open online courses and resources. Because of the restricted supply, each ODL becomes a Mooc, used by not-so excellent universities, who organize the tutoring, the discussions and exams. The not-so excellent universities pay the excellent universities a fee for the use of the materials and get an income from the students who want to get tutored, take exams and so forth.

Having some experience in developing distance education myself, I think the cost reduction is strongly depending on the amount of students. Designing and making good distance education is much more expensive than designing and giving face-to-face education. When the initial development costs are spread over more students, there will be a point after which ODL is cheaper than f2f education. However, as tutoring can not be up-scaled indefinitely, there can be an upper bending point after which the efficiency of tutoring declines and the cost reduction declines too.

Another drawback of Ruth’s approach is the division between developing and exploiting institutes, between high paying students studying on site at the excellent universities and other students studying at the not-so excellent universities. What such at division means for the social contract even when the economical crisis disappears, is not clear to me.

Mondon and Hoffstaeder give yet another view on such a division, however along the line of humanities versus natural sciences. They are afraid that online learning is in favour of hard sciences, which in their view can bet assessed by single answer questions, whereas humanities require other skills as good essay writing.

Secondly, they are afraid that students will not study humanities as the job prospects are limited; thirdly humanities are more dependent on student numbers and government grants as they find it harder to find private partners for funding their research.

Partly these worries are mirrored by the research of Teelken and the translation of this by Prinsloo, Stewart and Popenici, especially the dependency of education on market forces and efficiency, as stressed by Ruth. However, ODL, OER and Mooc’s are not the monsters depicted by Mondon and Hoffstaeder. Assessing essays, papers and other kinds of assessments are available and under construction. The fact that students in the present situation take their future job opportunities in account by choosing a curriculum is not strange given the economic situation, whereas the relation between ODL and research funding is a strange one.

When the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, closes his home to go There and Back Again, he didn’t realize what lay ahead of him. Also it is the question if modern multimedia techniques can beat 35 years of imagination. Will free ODL’s change the world is an open question but hopefully there will be a Back Again.

Making a better World: an economic view

Last week, our former colleague, Dianne Hofenk defended her PhD-thesis at the Open University. The thesis is titled “Making a Better World” and is a research into the contribution of a special carrier towards the greening of urban distribution. Large carriers deliver goods towards the borders of the city, where smaller distributors collect these goods, combine the parties in efficient batches and deliver the goods in the city, causing the pollution to decrease and give less congestion of the roads.

Besides several complex tests on factors which influence the participation of carriers, retailers and consumers, Dr Hofenk asked the question what determines the “ Willingness to pay more” of consumers for goods which have less impact on the environment? She stated that this was an especially relevant question as it influenced the sustainability of the business model, as policy makers had stated that they were prepared to subsidize the starting costs, but that the initiative has to be self-sufficient in time. The following discussion was on how the local distributors should be financed, through an increase of prices (by the costumers) or by transferring the profits of the carriers (more efficiency) and retailers (time saving) towards the distributors.

This seemed me an intriguing question, as from the point of view of welfare economics, there appears a straightforward role for the government. The government can maximize collective welfare if the negative effect of the taxes, necessary to subsidize this initiative is below the negative effects of the congestion and the pollution. Ideally, the government should divide the tax burden over both the three stakeholders, in ratio to the perceived weight or decreased costs.

However, an anonymous reviewer made a similar remark reviewing a piece on business models, sustainability and OER. In his opinion, the task of the government in providing education, and so also Open Educational Resources, is so clearly defined. It is therefore not done to ask the question how OER-initiatives can become self-providing, or less dependent on subsidizers. As stated above, the welfare economic view is that the government should redistribute income within society as long as the positive effects of more education outweigh the costs of more education.

Open Educational Resources are assumed to have a positive influence on the national level of education and so on economic growth, as on the quality and efficiency of education as a sector. Subsidizing OER is increasing social welfare as long as the added costs of this subsidy (including disturbance costs) are lower than the added benefits of more education.

However, more and more politicians see education as an individual choice; involving a trade off between individual costs and individual benefits. The student makes a choice of when, where and what he or she will study; financing this study by himself. The choice is assumed to be a rational one, based on the earnings after finishing the study versus the costs of financing it, using the family capital, bank loans or state loans (see the UK and the Netherlands). Rationality does require full information and the absence of (monetary) restrictions. Individuals have to make an estimation of the length of the study, the possibility of work after the study, income and future changes.

In this view are state subsidies for OER-courses unadvisable. Individuals will benefit of the offered courses (increase in income), but do not pay for them (Open ER). OER-systems should be self sustainable.

So it becomes more important to show how and where OER will have positive effects on quality and accessibility of education, on economic growth and on social cohesion. The individual approach to education is flawed and underestimates the positive contribution of free education by ignoring the national effects. Only by providing corroboration to this proposition, the state can be convinced to provide a continuous financial support to OER.