Professor Clayton M. Christensen used the platform of the New York Times to argue for the inevitable triumph of online education. Drawing an analogy from the replacement of sailing-ships by steam-powered ships at the turn of the twentieth century, the business school professor predicts the business of higher education will be disrupted in a similar way.
. . . the theory predicts that, be it steam or online education, existing consumers will ultimately adopt the disruption, and a host of struggling colleges and universities — the bottom 25 percent of every tier, we predict — will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years. Already traditional universities are showing the strains of a broken business model, reflecting demand and pricing pressures previously unheard-of in higher education. One example: Needing a cash infusion, Thunderbird School of Global Management in July announced a merger with Laureate Education Inc., an online pioneer.
Familiar cases such as the Harvard Business School’s adoption of online education and the craze over MOOCs are cited as signs of the inevitable beginning of the end of higher education was we know it. Professor Christensen confidently announces that
The lessons from any number of industries teach us that those that truly innovate — fundamentally transforming the model, instead of just incorporating the technology into established methods of operation — will have the final say. So it’s no wonder that observers of this phenomenon ask if online learning portends the end of the residential collegiate experience — the opportunity for students to live, socialize and learn together.
Sounds definitive. But is it? As compared to the history of ocean-going ships, what lessons should be drawn from the history of the university?
The university has been around in roughly the same form since the thirteenth century. Its “business model” has survived eight centuries, enduring long periods of bloody religious and political strife, two worldwide economic depressions, two World Wars, and, more recently, climate change. What guarantees its continuity and longevity is the judicious incorporation of innovation, not the scrapping of the entire model (as suggested by this business school professor). The university is a feudal structure, oriented to aristocratic values (i.e., scholastic honour), that has accommodated both capitalism (massive endowments) and democracy (greater access for the plebeians). The idea that “those who truly innovate . . . will have the final say,” based on “lessons from any number of industries,” demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the university. Online education will fill a niche for those seeking cheap academic credits or degrees with reduced requirements; but it will continue to have little impact on the university in the longue durée (i.e., centuries).