The Argument Against Disruption – Education Edition

This article is a guest post from Dan Beach.

Disruptive Innovation, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen is not a new concept. It is the result of technology commoditizing previously established industries, creating new value networks. This is often from the bottom-up through technology often seen as of lower quality than the incumbents’ and thus, at least initially, disregarded as a threat until it begins to enter the existing value network of the incumbent. Often by that point it’s too late for those existing companies and industries to compete in a meaningful way.

A more recent example of this can be seen in the rise of Netflix and the subsequent demise of Blockbuster, but disruption has been happening a great deal longer than that. Just ask Nortel or Lucent about those low quality routers from Cisco that can’t reliably handle voice and are thus uncompetitive against circuit switched voice. Ask Kodak about how low quality digital cameras, a technology they invented, can’t compete with “real” photographs; ask the vacuum tube manufacturers about transistor radios; or the buggy manufacturers about those dangerous new-fangled automobiles.

Each of these disruptions inevitably draws from the woodwork of the existing paradigm a collection of individuals that dismiss the idea of these innovations as disruptors – often correctly for the short term at least. They urge caution and warn against the perils of investing money, time or hope in the eventual rise of these disruptions as new models through which to get a job done, be that in transportation, music, pictures, movies or dare I say it – education. “It won’t happen because XYZ is of too low quality”; “it doesn’t meet the needs of current consumers who want ABC” (conveniently what they happen to be a proponent of); or “What will happen to the existing infrastructure and people employed in ABC if XYZ takes off?” (which just so happens to be the primary argument of Jonathan Rees’s piece in Slate on July 25, titled The MOOC Racket).

The premise of the piece, along with a great many more sure to come, is that education isn’t something that can be simply transferred in bits and bytes via a Youtube lecture, and that without a physical presence on campus amongst tens, hundreds or thousands of fellow students, learning somehow can’t happen. The idea that education is somehow finite, and without the physical presence and engagement that professors offer (assuming that exists in any meaningful way to begin with), content cannot be interpreted and provide the true value of interpretation that professors provide by virtue of their presence behind a lectern. Similar arguments, I’m sure, were made by priests during the advent of the printing press. “How could you hope to have a meaningful relationship with the Lord without the interpretive skills of His representative on Earth?” says the pastor, while demanding inordinate sums of money to absolve you of your sins.

This ignores, of course, the advantage that access to such content offers to the potentially billions of would-be learners, who in any other circumstance would do without the insight and knowledge provided by the professors who are apparently only interested in their own celebrity (thanks guys), according to Mr. Reese. This of course is to the determent of all, but especially their fellow faculty members. I, for one, am much happier with Steve Blank walking me through How to Build a Startup than my other options – which are to attend Stanford,  kidnap him and force him to reveal his secrets or the more likely option of just not learning anything at all.

And therein lies the rub. Where the traditional model of education has served a minute cross-section of the population, often without any accountability or significant benefit outside of providing employers with a means by which to gauge the candidacy of applicants in the form of a degree (a shoddy metric at best), MOOCs have the ability to democratize learning in a way that is accessible, consistently measureable, and that could level the playing field for the entire world. If the role of professors is truly to teach, to benefit society with knowledge that they are expertly equipped to impart, they should view the addition of potentially billions of new students as the greatest opportunity ever afforded their profession. Like any of the previously disrupted industries, there will be pain for those who fail to adapt to a shifting paradigm, but incredible opportunity for those that do, not to mention those that they serve.


This article is a guest post from Dan Beach.  Dan is an expatriate Canadian who has lived in China since 2003, working in the high tech industry providing marketing help to Chinese companies. He is a passionate believer in progress and in technology’s ability to change the world for the better. You can find him on Twitter @Brandkungfu

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