The Innovator’s Dilemma

Clay Christensen made a big splash in 1997 with his book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” in which he argued that well-managed, profitable companies are vulnerable to disruptive technologies that attack the heart of the business model and put them out of business. Fifteen years later, we have seen the demise of Borders, the re-formulation of Blockbuster, and the transformation of newspapers. How many of our students walk in to class with a Tribune or Sun-Times stuffed in their backpacks? How many times do teachers have to tell students to “Put away your newspapers and pay attention,” vs. the number of times they ask students to “Put away your cell phone and pay attention?”

I thought of Professor Christensen when I saw this blog post regarding online education entitled “Classrooms with 500,000 Students.” Stanford University’s Engineering department is leading a quiet revolution with its online offerings. Over 72,000 students registered for a Machine Learning class. Stanford’s brand attracted hundreds of thousands of students to their online offerings.

I asked in my State of the College address what is distinctive about HWC. Our students tell us that our number one draw is our location. I don’t see the attraction of in-person learning disappearing overnight. Our students are also attracted to the diverse mix of their fellow students. People like to spend time with people. The online learning experience is not yet able to provide the richness of in-class interactions.

And yet. Stanford is experimenting with delivery methods that attack their core education model. They are experimenting with innovation to get out ahead of the disruptive learning technologies. Mark Mills and Julio Ottino argue in today’s Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is on the brink of a technological revolution led by big data, smart manufacturing and the wireless revolution. Two of these three technologies have the potential to disrupt our educational model.

I don’t know how long it will take an educational model that has been in place for over 500 years to come under attack. If business is a bellwether, though, the disruptive technologies that place our model under siege may overcome us more quickly than we can imagine. Skeptical? Check out these sites here and here and here to see what helicopter parents are loading onto their three-year-olds’ iPads. And then skip over to iTunes University for a taste of what Apple has in store for us.  “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” – Neal Stephenson.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

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