Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen is the father of the idea of "disruption" as we currently understand it, that smaller, weaker, but more innovative companies break into the low end of a market, then end up completely overtaking previously dominant ones.
In an interview with Jeff Howe at Wired, Christensen was asked which industries are being disrupted right now, or will soon be in a state of disruptive crisis. He replied that publishing, journalism — really anything ad supported is already there.
Next up? Places like the one he happens to work:
"I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble."
The reason is the increasing availability online learning. It's going to follow Christensen's classic examples of disruption. Mini mills killed off big steel companies by making low quality, low margin rebar, then working their way up to eat their entire business. The same process is starting to happen in higher education.
Startups like The Minerva Project are already aggressively targeting the high end of higher education. They hope to offer an Ivy-caliber education at less than half the price that those universities charge.
Christensen said in the interview that an online accounting course from BYU outstrips anything Harvard Business School can offer.
So what does the future hold for our greatest universities? According to Christensen:
"Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid."
Disruption is coming for higher education. Even the best universities are going to have to change rapidly. Otherwise, they're going to be overtaken more rapidly than can imagine.
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