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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.”