As the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen is considered an international expert in the possibilities presented by disruptive technologies. As this year’s annual Benjamin Cluff Jr. Lecture presenter, Christensen shared insights about how the Internet, a “disrupter” of traditional classrooms, actually offers higher education immense potential to adapt to a changing world. “There are a lot of exciting things going on in the way we teach and the way we learn,” said Christensen.
Benjamin Cluff Jr., the first president of Brigham Young University, was an academic innovator during his 12-year administration. His legacy included a tradition of inviting renowned scholars to present to university faculty and students. The David O. McKay School of Education has celebrated this tradition of excellence through the annual Benjamin Cluff Jr. Lecture and awards, inviting Christensen to present the 2012 Lecture titled “Theories of Disruption in Education.”
An alumnus of BYU, Christensen explained that deciding to go to BYU has been a great advantage in his life. He explained that combining secular with spiritual learning has been a blessing to him, one that he wishes he could offer to his current students.
To set the stage, Christensen began by showing why Geneva Steel, formerly a local business, went bankrupt along with other large steelmakers. Until the 1970’s most steel products were manufactured in massive integrated mills. But by 1979, mini mills, which operate by melting scrap in smaller electric furnaces, drove the last integrated mills out of the business of producing rebar—steel bars used to reinforce cement. Both types of manufacturers were happy at first. Mini mills had a share of the market, and integrated mills quit producing their lowest margin product.
However, after the mini mills had driven all the integrated mills out of the rebar business, the price of rebar spiraled and mini mills had to figure out how to make better steel. So they improved their technologies, and soon they had the market on angle iron, and then sheet metal, and then—the integrated mills went out of business.
Christensen clarified, “How do you kill a leader? You define a fight where the leader doesn’t want to be because of profit—the leader walks away—but eventually this process kills the leader.” He added that the same process worked for Toyota which slowly strangled huge carmakers like Ford and Buick.
However, a few years ago a student pointed out to Christensen that the theory didn’t work for hotels. “It took us five years to find out why,” said Christensen. “In most industries there is a technology core. In the case of mini mills it was the electric furnace. In cars it was the unibody design. It turned out that in hotels there wasn’t a technological core.”
Hotel companies trying to increase their market emulate the top competitors; they replicate instead of disrupting. Christensen explained that higher education followed the hotel model—it didn’t have a technological core—until the Internet changed everything. To illustrate, Christensen went on to describe how he taught a course for the University of Phoenix by video. When asking the scope of dissemination, Christensen was told “about 135,000 MBA students.” He compared that to Harvard’s yearly count of 900 MBA students. “It’s called scale,” said Christensen.
Universities don’t compete on price; they compete on services and programs because the Government determines pricing by Pell Grants and student loans. However, students are defaulting on their loans in significant numbers and for significant amounts. Christensen predicted, “That system is going to collapse. Then competition on basis of price will start in earnest.”
Christensen further explained that there are two types of architectures. Interdependent architecture requires that everything be done in a certain sequence, which must be maintained in order to do anything. Modular open architecture fits more self-contained pieces in standard ways allowing them to be improved and easily modified. For the interdependent model of higher education, the unit of accreditation is interdependent with other units; for the modular open system the unit of accreditation is the course. The open system allows for outsourcing because success in one course is not dependent on specific knowledge from another.
It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that traditional universities operate with an interdependent architecture. Knowing how slowly education changes, Christensen further predicted that educational changes would emerge as automotive changes have—as hybrids—think Prius.
He further explained, “You come to college not just to learn, but for all the other experiences that make you a different person than you were as a teenager.” Building on that sentiment Christensen advocated for BYU and its faculty who are motivated by more than research. “It’s not just spirit at BYU, but so many of the faculty here want to change the life of students in an interdependent way that you just can’t match.”
May 1, 2012