The future consequences for higher education

In his 1997 book, “The Innovators Dilemma”, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen describes what he calls the mechanism of “disruptive innovation”. His model starts with a group of incumbent industries chasing a high margin over-served customer (because that is where the highest profits are). As a result the incumbents fail to pay sufficient attention to new market entrants who are focusing instead on the low margin customers.

Eventually incumbents wake up to the reality that the new entrants have captured the entire base of their industry (and the new entrants become the new incumbent dominators of the market). In a higher education context, this process will play out in the areas of learning traditionally ignored by high end universities (such as vocational learning) and then proceed to migrate up the educational food chain. By the time universities realise what is happening significant disruption to the market will have occurred.

The wave of impending disruption driven by online education is going to benefit users and learners – whilst undermining significant players in the education market including publishers and providers of existing proprietary education platforms. There is also the potential for polarisation of education towards courses which are popular or economically relevant – at the expense of other subjects or topics.