College faculty, Domestic, Private education, Public education, Publishers, Required, University & College - Written by on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 7:00 - 0 Comments

Clayton Christensen’s Latest Case Study in Disruption: The Innovative University


 by Susan Ujka Larson Collection via Flickr under Creative Commons


What do Harvard Business School and BYU-Idaho have in common? In 2005, then dean of HBS Kim Clark quit his job at the top business school in the country to become president of BYU-Idaho. A new book by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyering explains why he did it. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)(Jossey-Bass, 2011) explains the stories of the two schools in the rapidly-shifting world of higher education. Christensen is, himself, a professor at HBS and defined the idea of “disruptive innovation” in his book, “The Inventor’s Dilemma.” The authors explore how the two schools are both exploring innovative, less expensive ways to stay ahead of the curve. A reviewer in Forbes notes:

In particular, the book advocates that colleges and universities embrace online education. It argues that online technology makes a college or university vastly more attractive to a wide subset of students. It gives many people a second chance at learning – i.e. those who cannot afford a traditional college education, those who do not have the flexibility to take part in a full plate of coursework, and late bloomers or dropouts who have fallen behind and now have the chance to catch up. But online learning doesn’t just offer cheaper education for the masses. It improves the student learning experience across the spectrum by allowing students to learn at their own pace and on their own timetable.

Steve Denning recently spoke with the authors about the book in a piece on Here are the sections that relate to online learning:

  1. The book discusses at length the history and evolution of two important but very different universities, Harvard and BYU-Idaho. What do you see as the respective strengths and weakness of these two universities today?

Harvard of course excels in its reputation, faculty, wealth, and alumni network.  Its few significant weaknesses include organizational complexity and high operating cost.  The high cost derives from traits of the traditional research university, such as faculty who spend a relatively small percentage of their time in the classroom and a campus that sits largely idle during the summer.  Also, Harvard has invested heavily in a system of residential housing and high-quality tutoring.  This means that even students who pay the tuition sticker price aren’t covering the full cost of their education.  Thus, growing the size of its “customer” base, which is how businesses achieve scale economies and greater profitability, is financially problematic for Harvard and for other universities with similar operating models.  The number of students they can serve is limited, not because they don’t have enough qualified applicants, but because they can’t afford to subsidize additional students.

BYU-Idaho’s strengths include a low-cost operating model, which derives from (1) faculty focus on undergraduate instruction, (2) year-round operation, and (3) use of online learning technology.  A “Learning Model” common to all courses promotes consistent learning quality, even in online offerings.  BYU-Idaho’s ongoing challenge is to ensure learning quality by rigorously defining and measuring learning outcomes and continuously improving the curriculum.

7. The book praises BYU-Idaho for holding costs more or less constant for an in-person degree, i.e. preventing further cost increases (p.300) and cutting costs of an online degree by 75% (p.317). The book gives less information as to what Harvard has done to control costs. Do you think these efforts at cost control are adequate, given that student debt in the USA is now around $1 trillion and growing rapidly?

We all need to be looking constantly for ways to do more with less.  Fortunately, new learning technologies make that possible.  But Harvard and other elite institutions are in a paradoxical position.  Their students and alumni are satisfied with their current offerings; in fact, they have a huge surplus of qualified applicants.  They are exploring and investing in new learning technologies, and they have the capacity to use that technology to serve more students at lower cost, if they choose.  The question is when and how to change in ways that won’t detract from the quality of what they already do.

We’re likely to significant change in the next decade, the net effect of which will be more students served at a lower average cost.  However, the nature of the evolution will differ among institutions.  The elite schools will hybridize their courses not primarily to reduce cost or grow enrollments, but to better serve the rising generation of “digital natives” and to make the most of learning-enhancing computer-adaptive technology.  By contrast, schools without the benefit of high prestige and large endowments will hybridize and offer fully online courses mainly so that they can keep tuition affordable, admit more students, and use the incremental revenues to plug the hole left by rising operating costs and declining state support.  In all cases, students will benefit.

8.  The book says that world needs more university education, not less (p.344). Could you explain what you mean here? Given the financial issues in question #6, how realistic is that?

It’s clear that some form of higher education is becoming more important to making a comfortable living.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year college degree, but I’m certainly challenging my children to make that their first target.  As noted above, new technologies make it possible to provide a good college education at an affordable price.  BYU-Idaho, for example, has online degree programs for $65 per credit, or less than $10,000 in total.  Many students will be willing and able to pay more for a mixture of online and on-campus instruction.  Traditional institutions will offer programs at various points along this spectrum, as for-profit institutions are already doing.  We’re going to see more higher education options, more providers, and more students.

10. What other questions should I have asked you?

It’s worth noting that we’re predicting a different kind of disruption in higher education than the type seen in computer manufacturing, book publishing, or music and movie distribution.  Traditional university and college campuses won’t go the way of the record shop or the video rental store.  Particularly for young students, a college education is a social experience requiring some amount of face-to-face interaction.  The expensive investments that traditional institutions have made in brick-and-mortar facilities and full-time faculty members will always have unique value.  As these institutions adopt online learning technologies, they will be able to offer the best of both worlds to students who can afford to relocate from home and pay a premium over the cost of a fully online education.  Institutions that cling too long to the old model are unlikely to survive.  But those that innovate quickly have a bright future.




Leave a Reply


Campus Buzz

We welcome Tips & Pitches

What you need to know weekly:
The WiredAcademic newsletter.

* = required field

Latest WA Original Features

  • Twitter feed loading

Paul Glader, Managing Editor

Eleni Glader, Policy Editor

Elbert Chu, Innovation Editor

Ravi Kumar, Reporter & Social Media Editor

Derek Reed, Reporter

Brock Buesing, Contributor

error : cannot receive stock quote information

Cost of Education, Domestic, Education Quality, Ethics, For-Profit, Regulatory, Required, Students, University & College - Mar 11, 2012 21:17 - 0 Comments

Heard: Senators On Warpath Against For-Profit College Military Push

More In For-Profit

Blended Learning, Domestic, Elementary / Primary / Junior, Flipped Classrooms, High school / Secondary 2, International, Open Source Education, Required, School teachers, Startups, Students, Technology - Mar 12, 2012 19:04 - 0 Comments

Big Weekend For Sal Khan; Appears On 60 Minutes & Launches Free iPad App

More In Technology

Domestic, Education Quality, For-Profit, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, Required, University & College - Feb 10, 2012 16:36 - 0 Comments

Heard: NYC Warns Against For-Profit Adult Education Scams

More In Friend, Fraud, or Fishy