Beeta Ansari

Beeta is Ashoka U’s Exchange Director, the world’s largest global convening for social entrepreneurship education.

Michael Horn on Disruptive Innovation in Higher Ed: teaser for the #SocEntChat

To start the conversation about “Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education” that will be held at the Exchange, Ashoka U invites you to join  Michael Horn, an expert in the field, in a Twitter discussion on February 7th, 2012.

As a teaser for this conversation, you can find Michael’s and Curtis’ idea on one of the cutting edge innovations that are currently disturbing Higher Ed.

To learn and share more, join @ashokau from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).

MITx: One Small Step for MIT; One Giant Leap for Higher Education

By Michael B. Horn and Curtis Lefrandt

When MIT launched its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative almost a decade ago to provide free, open access to anyone, anywhere to the course material for its undergraduate- and graduate-level courses, it created a stir in the education community.  At the outset, many questioned not just OCW’s value but also the value of learning online more generally. At the time, online learning was still a niche offering in the landscape of higher education—and it had generally been the domain of the for-profit universities.

Since then though, more than 120 universities have joined MIT’s initiative. MIT itself has had more than 100 million users access its content, and 1.4 million more are visiting each month. Over 30 percent of higher education students now take at least one online course, and according to a meta-study from the Department of Education, “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

Online learning is coming of age and transforming the way we learn. And given that it bears the classic hallmarks of a disruptive innovation, that isn’t all that surprising.

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry with products and services that are complicated, expensive, and inaccessible into one where its products and services are far simpler, more accessible, and more affordable. The disruptive innovation tends to take root in areas of nonconsumption where it is far better than the alternative, literally nothing at all—and thus, over time, the disrupted industry allows a much larger segment of users (formerly nonconsumers) to access the product or service.

At first, disruptions tend to be primitive, but two key elements allow them to take root and flourish. The first is a technology enabler, which allows the innovation to improve predictably and scale to serve more and more users over time. In the case of higher education, online learning—and its associated components—is the technology enabler.

The second key element is a new business model. A new business model is important because plugging a disruptive innovation into an existing business model never results in transformation of the model; instead, the existing model co-opts the innovation to sustain how it operates. Many online universities started with new business models in place such that they could prioritize the disruption and grow, and now at last we’re seeing MIT come of age and take the next step into this disruptive future as well.

This past December, MIT announced that it would be soon be launching MITx—a learning platform that will provide interactive, online courses that will not only be free for users around the world, but that will also allow users to receive credit for having taken these courses. For a small fee, users will be able to demonstrate mastery and receive credit from MITx, not the traditional MIT program.

This is a wise move. Although our studies have shown that historically it has been difficult for existing institutions to prioritize offerings disruptive to their own model, there have been exceptions. In every case, those exceptions have occurred when the institution created an autonomous business model—often with its own brand—such that the disruption could operate unburdened by the parent organization’s existing processes and priorities. MITx appears poised to do just that, as MIT will likely finally provide its online courses a home in a coherent business model, even as MIT protects its own traditional brand.

What’s even more exciting to think about is the impact this could have on the broader world beyond Cambridge, Mass. With MITx courses available for anyone anywhere, the ability for nearly anyone to receive a world-class education at an affordable price—and be able to prove to schools and employers that they have done so and show what they know how to do—is a stunning development. It could potentially lead to the modularization of all of education, as we have known it. And given that modularization allows users to have far more customization, this could potentially allow students to have access to a far more student-centric learning experience over time, such that they would be able to pick and choose not only what they learn, but from where and how they learn it on a course-by-course, or even a concept-by-concept, basis.

With MITx having said that its online learning platform will not only be free for users, but that it will also be open source and any educational institution will be able to use it to develop their own online offering, we could see this disruption transforming the world of education far more rapidly than anyone would have thought possible just a decade ago.

Michael B. Horn is the cofounder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also the author of several publications and articles, including the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Curtis Lefrandt is an associate at Innosight, a global innovation and strategy consulting firm that collaborates with senior leaders at the world’s top companies to identify and pursue new growth opportunities, build innovation capabilities, and create disruptive new products, services, and businesses.