How Disruptive Innovation is Remaking the University

Sharon Rieger's picture

It has been more than a decade since the publication of The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clayton M. Christensen introduced the idea of disruptive technologies—those unexpected products and services that shake up the market not because they are better than the traditional competition, but because they are are cheaper and easier to use. In The Innovative University, Christensen and Henry J. Eyring take the idea of disruptive innovation to the field of higher education, where new online institutions and learning tools are challenging the future of traditional colleges and universities. In this excerpt, they discuss the idea of a university's DNA.

The Innovative UniversityIn the absence of a disruptive new technology, the combination of prestige and loyal support from donors and legislators has allowed traditional universities to weather occasional storms. Fundamental change has been unnecessary.

That is no longer true, though, for any but a relative handful of institutions. Costs have risen to unprecedented heights, and new competitors are emerging. A disruptive technology, online learning, is at work in higher education, allowing both for-profit and traditional not-for-profit institutions to rethink the entire traditional higher education model. Private universities without national recognition and large endowments are at great financial risk. So are public universities, even prestigious ones such as the University of California at Berkeley.

Price-sensitive students and fiscally beleaguered legislatures have begun to resist costs that consistently rise faster than those of other goods and services. With the advent of high-quality online learning, there are new, less expensive institutional alternatives to traditional universities, their standing enhanced by changes in accreditation standards that play to their strengths in demonstrating student learning outcomes. These institutions are poised to respond cost-effectively to the national need for increased college participation and completion.

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