Disruptive Innovation, Online Education, and Autonomy

Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation includes as one of its tenets that it is rare for incumbents in an industry to maintain their dominant position once a disruptive innovation has run its course. In industries as different as software, steel manufacturing and online book retailing, incumbents have been pushed aside by new organizations that employ technologies in new ways. Although large, well-run organizations often have the resources to generate innovations, their commitment to existing customers, focusing on improving existing systems, and unwillingness to pursue niche markets, stops them from investing sufficiently in new products and new markets.


According to Christensen, and others that have applied his theory to higher education, online learning is this sector’s potentially disruptive innovation. Like disruptive innovations in other sectors, online learning offers a more convenient, flexible solution to segments of the market that are currently being over or under-served by the traditional higher education model. If online learning adheres to the trajectory of disruptive innovations, in time it will improve in quality and become increasingly inexpensive; eventually capturing a significant portion of the total higher ed market.

Chistensen argues that the only way for incumbents to avoid being the victim of disruptive innovation is to create autonomous units within their organizations that have the freedom to create new products and pursue new markets - even if that means cannibalizing the market of the host institution.

Robert Birnbaum wrote: “The logical conclusion of applying the theses of The Innovator’s Dilemmaand The Innovator’s Solutionto higher education may be that virtual education can thrive in traditional colleges and universities only if it operates outside their normal management and value frameworks, with the consequent risk of losing institutional control.” Robert Birnbaum, Academe.

For most professionals leading online education within traditional colleges the issue of independence from central services and faculties is front-of-mind. The degree of autonomy of these units is a fundamental factor determining how they operate, their ability to scale-up operations, and the capacity to create services and course designs that match the unique needs of online learners. Generally, the greater the degree of autonomy, the better able the online unit is able to serve students. The tension that results from these competing interests makes driving an online unit in a traditional institution one of the more challenging and political positions in higher ed.

As of 2011, few online learning units in traditional institutions have the political clout to demand greater levels of autonomy. Despite the growing enrolment in online learning - five times that of overall enrolment - the majority of institutions still don’t treat online learning as a strategic issue. Indeed, many schools still don’t include it in their strategic plans (according to the most recent Sloan-C/Babson report, released last week).

Nevertheless, it is possible for leaders of online learning to adjust their relationship to the central university systems and power centres. But they need to be tactical; focusing their change management efforts on the most important parts of their operation to online learning success such as marketing, course scheduling, student support, integration of online courses with central services, including libraries, bookstores, and career services.