The Role of Disruptive Technology in the Future of Higher Education

Key Takeaways

  • Although not a magical way to transform higher education, disruptive technology must interrupt our usual policies, practices, and assumptions.
  • Truly disruptive tools will force new thinking and new approaches to ensuring student learning in higher education.
  • Technology enables online learning, which potentially qualifies as a disruptive innovation in education.

Having been immersed lately in reading about disruptive technologies, I am in a quandary. Which — if any — technology in higher education is truly disruptive? How would we know? Is there a way to make any technology disruptive? And finally, how might disruptive technology affect higher education’s future?

Pressures for Change

Pressures from all sides have generated an urgent need for change in higher education today:

  • Declining government revenues for allocation to higher education
  • Students worried about affording another round of tuition increases
  • Leaders from government, business, and higher education pleading for more efficiency, more productivity, more graduates, and more learning

As a faculty member, I do not doubt the necessity for change, but I am less clear on the how. In the early days of the technology boom, government leaders touted technology as a way to magically transform higher education, but just adding computers did not bring about the new higher education so deeply desired. Perhaps, though, technology derives its potentially disruptive power from interrupting our usual practices and policies. A computer inserted between faculty and students forces faculty to think anew about what a course aims to achieve rather than to continue with existing ways of designing and delivering a course. Technology prompts a pause in the usual thought patterns, encouraging reflection. Eventually a new understanding of how learning happens and what a course could be emerges. This theory was my first guess about how and why disruption could occur. It did not answer the question of whether disruption has happened in higher education, or what it looks like if it has.

Disruptive Innovations and Online Learning

Clayton Christensen1 developed the concept of disruptive innovations, which are technological innovations, products, services, processes, or concepts that disrupt the status quo. Along with Michael Raynor,2 Christensen further developed the concept to apply to businesses, where the disruptive innovation might actually under perform existing technologies or not satisfy customers in the mainstream market. In time, however, firms that use the disruptive technology satisfy a niche market or fringe customers who value the technology or the product it makes possible. The technology eventually exceeds the performance of prior products and improves to the extent that it satisfies the mainstream market. Firms that support the disruptive technology “displace incumbent firms that supported the prior technology.”3

It did not take long for the term to be applied to education and to a variety of new tools and processes. Different writers have touted the Internet, wikis, blogs, social media, mobile devices, open source tools, open education, anytime/anywhere education, social bookmarking, sharing sites (for photos, videos, music, files of all sorts), RSS, wireless connections, Google, Creative Commons, instant messaging, Internet telephony, social networks, free software, digital cameras and recorders, cloud computing, cheap storage, groupware, broadband, and virtual worlds as disruptive innovations in education. Perhaps. Certainly, these are interesting and powerful tools. Rita Kop4 calls this tendency to see disruption in every new tool “naïve enthusiasm” — or maybe this tendency reveals where our hopes lie.

In attempting to apply Christensen’s research to online learning, I have found both early evidence of disruption and some wishful thinking. Enrollments in online programs totaled 937,000 students in 2004,5 1.2 million students in 2005, and 3.9 million in 2007, or 7.9 percent of the total student enrollment in degree-granting institutions.6 In addition, 20 percent of students surveyed took an online course in 2007. We cannot estimate how many courses use online learning to improve student learning or enhance the quality of on-campus classes, but the figure is probably high. These enrollment figures might indicate that online learning is tapping into a new market of students previously unable to enroll, but the number also surely includes currently enrolled students who are augmenting their on-campus courses with online courses. In any case, online learning has not reinvented the higher education marketplace despite enrollment growth rates around 20 percent per year. Nonetheless, this growth and the widespread use of online materials in on-campus coursework might be early signs of innovative disruption.

The U.S. Department of Education7 has compiled studies comparing online and face-to-face education and found that students performed better in online courses than in face-to-face courses, while courses that blended online and face-to-face instruction yielded the largest gains (matching an early finding of my own8), due in part to:

  • Spending more time-on-task
  • Giving students more control over their learning
  • Providing greater opportunities for reflection

This research, and the widespread attention paid to it, might encourage more faculty to explore online learning. We already know that the simple act of teaching online improves faculty opinions of online learning.9 While those who don’t teach online view it more negatively, the growing evidence for its effectiveness can help answer some faculty questions and address some concerns.

What qualities make online learning disruptive, if it is found to be so? Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson10 recently applied the theory to K–12 education. They concluded that the insertion of computers in K–12 classrooms was an unlikely disruptor because it did not change the usual instructional models in common use, but using computers to provide student-centric education could do so. For students in schools that don’t offer certain courses, online options allow them to follow their interests. The authors documented the rise in enrollments in Apex Advanced Placement (AP) courses, totaling 1 million student enrollments in more than 4,000 school districts. Virtual high schools, virtual chemistry labs, and other innovations contribute to the growth in online K–12 education, and it will continue to increase for four reasons:

  • Continuing improvement
  • The ability for students, faculty, and parents to select a learning pathway that suits individual learners
  • Teacher shortages
  • Falling costs

Customized learning also results from the explosion of tools allowing students to produce their own content and seek help from tutoring software.

Enabling Disruptive Innovation in Online Learning

It is not computer use but how computers are used that makes disruptive innovation possible in higher education. What elements of use can disrupt traditional practices? Faculty lectures, for example, whether podcasts or streaming video, are still one-way, passive instructional models. Cleborne Maddux and D. Lamont Johnson11 call these Type I uses of technology, which automates or replicates an existing practice. Type II uses of technology allow students and teachers to do things that could not be done before. Their approach provides another way to conceive disruption: one technology maintains existing relationships among faculty and students and content, while another changes these relationships in fundamental ways.

Terry Anderson12 pointed to the importance of placing the student at the center of the learning experience, as have others. That means a greater focus on student-generated content, students’ use of collaboration and sharing tools such as Web 2.0 applications, and modular tutoring. Brent Wilson13 also noted the importance of learner-centered approaches while emphasizing uses of automated instruction, self-publishing, and peer-to-peer networking. These changes mean we need to focus on what many students want: more convenience and service, lower cost, and more effective education. It also means designing instruction so that students are encouraged to read, ponder, and discuss; shape their understandings of the material; evaluate their knowledge; and create new knowledge.

I can hear faculty worrying about what role they play in such a model. Someone needs to design the instruction, develop the self-help tools and course content, answer questions, and guide the confused. Someone still needs to establish the learning outcomes and design the assessments that will establish whether learning occurred. Someone still needs to address the needs of students who are not well-equipped to learn online: the unsure, the inexperienced, and the needy. Someone needs to help students learn how to learn, and how to do so online. Someone needs to be at the other end of the connection to offer support, a well-timed question, a reference, and a critique of what was done and how to do a better job next time. These are the roles faculty have traditionally fulfilled throughout their professional lives, so the change from “me” to “thee” need not be traumatic, but a gentle transition.

How, then, can higher education harness the disruptive qualities of online learning? Essential qualities include the following:

  • It must be student-centered, with learning put first, and flexible enough to accommodate different styles and interests. It should provide necessary supports, but require that the student do the work.
  • It must be designed to offer options, motivate students, and provide connections to students’ lives, jobs, and communities.
  • It must capitalize on the willingness of faculty and students to experiment and fail, to improve, and to keep at problems until solutions are crafted.

Finally, it is important to remember that disruption also manifests in more negative trends: increased plagiarism, cheating, and distraction. Those problems also need to be addressed.

Disruption and the Future of Higher Education

So what does the theory of disruption — and the tools that disrupt existing models of teaching and learning — mean for the future of higher education? First, we will hear new software or tools labeled “disruptive technologies” as frequently as we do now. It is guaranteed that the future will see more disruptive technologies, since we seem to like the idea and find it in many forms. Second, simple faith in disruption is faith poorly placed. No tool, on its own, is likely to produce disruption. Disruption takes upsetting the status quo, focusing on student-centered learning, changing relationships, sharpening our insight, and designing instruction to increase learning and lower costs. Third, some tools will and some won’t be truly disruptive. Those that are will probably force a pause in our usual thinking, a reassessment of past procedures, a letting go of past assumptions, and an introduction of a new perspective that opens a new way for doing our work. Truly innovative disruption prompted by technology in higher education will force us to think in new ways, providing opportunities for the changes needed for higher education to survive and thrive.

  1. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (New York: Harper Collins, 1997 and 2000).
  2. Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor, The Innovator’s Solution(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003).
  3. Erwin Danneels, “Disruptive Technology Reconsidered: A Critique and Research Agenda,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, vol. 21, no. 4 (July 2004), pp. 246–258, see p. 247.
  4. Rita Kop, “Web 2.0 Technologies: Disruptive or Liberating for Adult Education?” Adult Education Research Conference 2008, St. Louis, Missouri, June 5–7, 2008.
  5. Dan Carnevale, “Online Courses Continue to Grow Dramatically, Enrolling Nearly 1 Million, Report Says,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 28, 2005.
  6. I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008,” Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium, November 2008.
  7. U.S. Department of Education, “Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” prepared by Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones, 2009.
  8. Katrina Meyer, “Face-to-Face Versus Threaded Discussions: The Role of Time and Higher-Order Thinking,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, vol. 7, no. 3 (September 2003).
  9. Jeff Seaman, “Online Learning as a Strategic Asset,” Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences with Online Learning, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Sloan Consortium, and Babson Survey Research Group, August 2009.
  10. Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson, Disrupting Class (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008).
  11. Cleborne D. Maddux and D. Lamont Johnson, “Type II Applications of Technology in Education,” Computers in the Schools, vol. 22, nos. 1 & 2 (2005), pp. 1–5.
  12. Terry Anderson, “Disruptive, Online Education to Go Main Stream,” Virtual Canuck blog entry June 26, 2008.
  13. Brent G. Wilson, “Trends and Futures of Education: Implications for Distance Education,” Quarterly Review of Distance Education, vol. 3, no. 1 (2002).