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Planning for Disruption and the Future of Higher Education

Clayton Christensen, the opening keynote speaker at the fourth annual Harvard IT Summit, talked about the ways online learning is transforming higher education. Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), asked and answered a question specifically about HBS, but that can be asked by any college or university, “What Harvard Business School needs to do is think about whether we can use online learning to help our customers-students. I think we can.” Christensen states that it won’t be easy, due to the complex structure of higher education. And he goes on to speak about curricular architecture:

“At HBS, the architecture [of the curriculum] is excruciatingly interdependent. Management is like a huge hairball: In order to teach anything, you need to teach everything. But now there are about 3,000 corporate universities, and they have a modular approach. You can just take three weeks on strategy, or a stand-alone accounting class, and leave the interdependencies of HBS behind.”

Christensen concludes that “Modularity is overtaking interdependent architectures…courses are becoming modular…The brand [recognition] could move away from the universities to the courses.”

Now, I don’t think that Harvard needs to worry about its brand being diminished in any way by its faculty becoming independent contractors, or what some are calling, Rock Star instructors. However, in a recent New York Times (NYT) article on the development of HBX, the new online education program from HBS, Jerry Useem did mention a possible concern of midtier schools which feared that elite business schools, with their “Online Stars”, would gobble up a larger share of a shrinking pie. From the NYT article:

This raises a still more radical case, in which the winners are not any institution, new or old, but a handful of star professors. One of Professor Porter’s generic observations — that the Internet increases the “bargaining power of suppliers” — suggests just that. “It’s potentially very divisive in a way,” [Paul Ulrich, vice dean for innovation at Wharton] acknowledged. “We’re all partners; we all get paid roughly the same. Anything that starts to fracture the enterprise is a sobering prospect.”

François Ortalo-Magné, dean of the University of Wisconsin’s business school, says fissures have already appeared. Recently, a rival school offered one of his faculty members not just a job, but also shares in an online learning start-up created especially for him. “We’re talking about millions of dollars,” Mr. Ortalo-Magné said. “My best teachers are going to find platforms so they can teach to the world for free. The market is finding a way to unbundle us. My job is to hold this platform together.”

Mr. Ortalo-Magné facetiously takes the possible disruption caused by online stars to another level, “How many calculus professors do we need in the world?…Maybe it’s nine. My colleague says it’s four. One to teach in English, one in French, one in Chinese, and one in the farm system in case one dies.”

The point he is trying to make is clear however. If a qualified, passionate instructor develops the best online course, one that meets all the criteria of a high quality course, up-to-date and appropriate content for the coverage area, engagement, community and student support, robust outcomes and assessment of student learning, etc., and the infrastructure to enroll and serve any number of students, is there any need for a second course?

Is there such a course today? Probably not. And are we anywhere close to having students take courses from free-lance independent faculty who have the name recognition and reputation as the best instructor in a particular discipline? No. And would a rock star MBA business instructor eat into the MBA enrollment at HBS? No. And would we even want such a system?

Even so, this doesn’t mean that colleges and universities, perhaps all but those in the elite tier, shouldn’t consider the possibility that students, at some point in the future, will have the option to choose courses to fulfill a program of study from a list of top instructors. For this to work, and to get around issues such as residency requirements and eligible transfer courses, the system we work in would need to change. But that’s the point that Christensen was trying to make in his keynote, higher ed. Should think about online learning as a disruptive innovation.

Christensen finished his keynote with a last question. With more ways to access learning, “Is this [transformation] a threat or an opportunity for Harvard?” (And I would add for any school?) After a long pause, the question was answered by Anne Margulies, CIO at Harvard, “It’s both.”

About Walter Breau

Walter C. Breau is the vice president of academic affairs at Elms College, a small Catholic, Liberal Arts College in Chicopee, MA. Follow Walter on Twitter @DrBreau.

2 comments on “Planning for Disruption and the Future of Higher Education

  1. Van Piercy
    June 10, 2014

    I’m bothered by the quest for One Course to Rule Them All, especially in divergent fields where critical inquiry and scholarly interest (not to mention the plurality of academic backgrounds and visions faculty members bring to the table–within the same discipline) provide many pathways to excellence and great results in achieving learning outcomes.

    For decades the field of rhetoric and composition (“Writing Studies”) has focused on pedagogical issues as inherent to its basic research agenda, and there is still a heady divergence of approaches, pedagogical methods and ongoing refinements, with no lack of disagreements; nonetheless there has been development and strands of consensus in the field, especially, as I understand it, on teaching the rhetoricity of writing and communication. In fact, reading Elizabeth Wardle’s recent review essay in this June’s issue of College Composition and Communication, one sees her worry about ongoing, mostly at this point technological and digital disruptions within the scholarly field of rhetoric and composition: “’Will we keep our teaching rhetorical?’ The answer will deeply impact the future of our field—and whether we remain a field that has at its core a coherent, recognizable subject of study” (CCC 65:4/june 2014. 664).

    So one has to ask, if whole academic fields themselves rightly and properly struggle with internal disruption and innovation, how “excellent” and smart is it to put all of a discipline’s eggs in one basket of a (cannibalizing) course, no matter who is teaching it or how many threads, as Breau points out above, of “engagement, community and student support, robust outcomes and assessment of student learning, etc.” such a dream online course contains? I think we and our “customers” will be better off acknowledging the real, legitimate differences in how to teach and what to teach within given academic fields. Foreshortening those differences in the name of some juicy money-making monolith of a course wouldn’t have as much to do with learning and academic quality as it would pretend to do.

  2. Pingback: One Course to Rule Them All | Van Piercy's Blog

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