Disruptive education?

The disruption resulting from academics and students expressing their concerns with the changes to higher education that the coalition government proposes may trigger important changes. Can disruption be useful as a way of understanding the OU?

Clayton Christensen employs terms associated with business (he is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School) but his ideas might be of value to an analysis of the OU. He has also written (with Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. His contribution to a book about the internet and the university (Clayton M. Christensen, Sally Aaron, and William Clark, “Disruption in Education,” in The Internet and the University: Forum 2001, ed. Maureen Devlin, Richard Larson, and Joel Meyerson (Boulder, Colo.: EDUCAUSE and the Forum for the Future of Higher Education, 2002), reprinted in EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 38, no. 1 (January/February 2003): 44–54) can be found here.

Does the innovation target customers who in the past haven’t been able to do something themselves for lack of money and skills? Although ‘customers’ is not a term which is always helpful in the context of the HE sector, in regard to the OU, this question could be answered in the affirmative.

Is the innovation aimed at customers who will be delighted to have a simple product? If you marginalise the particularistic business discourse (learners and customers are not always one and the same) then you might recognise that this is a valid description of the supported open learning offered by the OU.

Will the innovation help customers do more easily and effectively what they are already trying to do? Again, the OU can be said to meet what Christensen calls this ‘litmus test’.

What are the implications of passing Christensen’s tests? Can Clayton M. Christensen notion of a disruptive innovation (that is one that disrupts an existing market) will be employed to frame an understanding of the development of the OU?

Martin Weller has considered some pertinent elements of this in regard to the OU and it has been argued by Michael Simonson that ‘distance education  is certainly not a sustaining technology. Rather, distance education, virtual schooling, and e-learning are disruptive.’

Christensen suggested that ‘disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components… They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.” (Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, 1997, p. 15.] In the case of the OU it was disruptive because it improved educational possibilities in unexpected ways whereas other universities had largely been ‘sustaining’ innovations which may have transformed the lives of their students but, because they were only available to a relatively small number of people, did not disrupt.

However, disruptive innovations tend not to come from established organizations, which often seek to retain their students and improve their teaching materials not pursue niche markets. Maybe the OU ceased to be innovative at some point? Christensen suggested that while most innovations come from new organizations, independent units within a larger organization can be disruptive. Robert Birnbaum, Academe, Jan/Feb2005, Vol. 91, Issue 1 suggested:

The logical conclusion of applying the theses of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution to higher education may be that virtual education can thrive in traditional colleges and universities only if it operates outside their normal management and value frameworks, with the consequent risk of losing institutional control.

The theory is also discussed by Ron Bleed here. For Naj Shaik, ‘Distance Learning in the Next Decade: Looking Through a Disruptive Innovations Lens’, see here.

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