I finally got around to reading through a great report jointly published by the Center for American Progress and the Innosight Institute. Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education was published in February of last year and was authored by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, Louis Caldera and Louis Soares. For those of you that enjoy anything written by Clayton Christensen and team, this is a must read and addresses an important topic. However, I do believe the report glosses over a key job that colleges and universities are hired to perform. That job is to provide an environment where students gain wisdom through the college experience,  a critical piece to the transformation to adulthood. It is far from clear how that job is or will be disrupted. However, if and when an enabling technology begins addressing that job even feebly, the pace of disruption will accelerate tremendously and all but the most prestigious colleges and universities will be overwhelmed.  

Disrupting College Report by Christensen et al
The Disrupting College Report was published in February of 2011.
The report's basic premise is that colleges and universities are being significantly disrupted by for-profit institutions (such as University of Phoenix) that provide streamlined, affordable education including online 'distance learning' with business models well-matched to the jobs they are performing. Traditional Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) are struggling beneath the weight of their complex and inefficient business models as they work to extend their reach to a broader spectrum of the population while at the same time seeing critical supporting federal and state monies dwindle. On top of that, university endowments were severely damaged in 2008. One result is tuition increases over the past two decades that easily outstrip just about every other market segment and so render a higher education unaffordable for most. 

A root cause is that traditional IHEs are trying to be great at too many things and so have built-in overhead cost structures that no longer work effectively. To gain deeper understanding into what's going on and how IHE's might best adapt, Christensen and team applied a number of the basic disruptive innovation principles developed and honed in examination of the disk drive, steel, automobile, and smartphone industries, to name a few.  

The enabling technology for the disruption is online learning, which has grown significantly in terms of both market penetration and quality during the past decade. The convenience and flexibility of online learning certainly makes a whole lot of sense for older students (in their 30's and beyond) who must acquire new skills to adjust their career trajectory or otherwise expand their capability. Younger students, especially those that have limited means, are also relying on online learning as a more affordable way of gaining the requisite knowledge. There are well-founded concerns about how best to improve or assure academic integrity associated with online learning (see some of the posts here). However, I do think this aspect will continue to improve as some of the supporting technologies already exist. There are also real concerns about significant overselling by the for-profit universities and the opinion that for-profit education is the next bubble to burst (see this column by Rick Kriseman).  
The Importance of the 'College Experience'

Now, let's get to my issue with the report. I have two college-aged daughters in traditional IHE's. My experience observing their growth and maturation the past few years, coupled with my own (now depressingly dated) experience tells me there are two halves to the job an IHE is being hired to perform.  One half is to provide knowledge that is hopefully absorbed by the students. The vehicles here are coursework and select research activities with teacher-to-student and pear-to-peer-student collaboration. The other is to provide an immersive environment where wisdom is gained through the so-called college experience. The vehicles here are dorms, cafeterias, sporting events, the Greek system, and so on, where a myriad of peer-to-peer interactions transform students from old adolescents living at home to young adults ready to strike out on their own. This job is generally not one of value to those over 30, who are gaining their share of wisdom at the office and through family interactions, but is a vital one for the 18-25 year olds. 

There's a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, of course. Knowledge is explicit skill and training and is pretty objective in nature. It translates, at least partially, to the online environment. Wisdom, on the other hand, includes all sorts of tacit insight and real-world experience gained through diverse interactions, experiences, and failures. I think the college experience initiates the lifelong process through which wisdom is gained.  

There are many paths to make the transition from old adolescence to young adulthood, and the traditional IHE environment is not for everyone. In addition, each college and university campus creates its own somewhat unique environment and how well that matches the individual plays a big role in the degre to which the student begins to blossom.  

So, what are the alternative delivery mechanisms or technologies for the college experience? This is far from clear to me, but there are certainly some possibilities. Social media and its supporting tools could begin serving in this capacity as their reach and influence continues to grow. Peer-to-peer interactions and collaborations will need to be more immersive, more intimate, more intense. Motivated for-profit institutions could be creative and offer an approximate environment as a competitive advantage (their next up-market move?). Or, not-for-profit institutions that streamline their overhead structure and deliver a cost-effective online learning experience may choose to retain a minimum college experience environment through partnerships with local communities. Perhaps there is an innovative idea out there that will begin to gain traction in the next few years.  

Looking Ahead

I have high regard for the Disrupting College report.  It addresses a broad range of issues in an effective way and explains, at least to me, a significant number of causes and effects for the tremors in our IHEs. It also makes some solid recommendations as to how middle- and lower-tier IHEs might adapt and survive. 

However, I think one of the jobs performed by IHEs is not adequately factored into the analysis. When examining the important difference between knowledge and wisdom and its contribution to the effectiveness of our workforce and society in general, traditional IHEs can still hang their hat on this other job they perform. Of course, you may rightly argue that this job is not worth $10,000-25,000/year. But it's far from zero, too. Thus, it allows the traditional IHEs to retain some immunity to disruption even in the face of their daunting challenges. If for-profit universities figure out how to perform this job, or if students begin finding other service providers for the equivalent of a college experience, look out --- our alma maters will all go the way of the integrated steel mill. 

8/13/2012 03:28:55 pm

No disagreement with you here actually. We alluded to this briefly, but didn't have space to address it in the report. Look for more work from us on this very topic though. There are a few ways to imagine this playing out. To list a few: (1) it won't for the elite schools and so for those who have benefited from this, they will continue to do so; (2) As online learning improves with social learning and blended learning and the like, it will bake in many of these experiences and while it won't compete for some time with the upper end of college education; (3) Just as newspapers were disrupted by lots of different things doing lots of different jobs (whereas newspapers were a general-purpose product doing several different jobs), so, too, will colleges be disrupted by the same assortment of things. Michael Staton does a great job capturing the multi-faceted jobs that colleges do, and it is possible to imagine "the great unbundling" in which different products and services would arise to disrupt each one in turn by turn... Perhaps a 1- or 2-year residential experience abroad for example in which people would live with their peers and work on difficult problems and assimilate their academic learning that they did online to the real world? Or any number of other combinations.

Steve Hannon
8/14/2012 12:18:44 am

Thanks for the background and sage insights. The analogy to the newspaper saga is an informative one. For those interested, here's the diagram that conveys the insights referenced by Michael - http://edumorphology.com/2012/06/unbundling-education-an-updated-framework/. Great.

Looking forward to your team's continued work in this area!


8/23/2013 03:24:53 am

Clayton Christensen and team always produces something that is worth our attention. The Disrupting College Report: Does It Gloss Over a Key Job to be Done? - is not an exception in this case. Thank you a lot for sharing your suggestion regarding it.


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