I’ve been trying to write this post since February, and each time it spirals out of control. So here’s an attempt to barrel through and tell it plain.
“Disruptive Technology” used to mean something. It’s actually defined, in a book-length tome, by Clayton Christensen in the mid-90s. And it’s definition hinges on a set of cultural and economic pressures.
In a truly disruptive situation, major players in a market make sustaining improvements to their core product to serve an existing customer base. Think housing, where everyone tries to build bigger and better houses, and make money on customization and upgrades. Meanwhile, down-market a group of people not served by the core product make do with an inferior product. Let’s say, in this case, modular homes. So you’ve got your traditional buyers and your trailer park residents.
What the disruption is (and the only type of disruption that is actually meaningful) is when suddenly traditional buyers of houses start looking at the rapidly improving modular homes and think — hey, maybe we could go modular!
At that point, all the process around the traditional product and all the corporate capacity to produce it become a bit of a burden. Additionally it’s not quite worth it enough to shed the existing customer base — which locks the traditional market into their current business model, and unable to fully evolve (think about the way Microsoft’s Office Suite revenue has constrained its available strategies).
So, is that what is happening in the housing market? Oh, who knows. Probably not. But the potential is there. When a large number of third generation traditional homeowners start looking at $150,000 modulars, that’s when you’ll know.
Is that happening in the higher education market?
Interesting thing, that. A while back my wife said to me, regarding our daughter’s college education – if we can’t make it work without deep loans, we’ll just have her go to community college a couple years, then transfer in, because “no one cares where you spent your freshman year.”
I am a second generation college student on my Dad’s side. I’ve got a Masters degree. I work in higher education. But the more I thought about it, the more it made a sort of sense. The “cruise ship” amenities colleges have had to provide to compete are a distraction, and attract a set of students that aren’t really helpful to Katie’s success. The social culture of college has also become increasingly dysfunctional, and is not always suitable for a 18 year old kid (whereas it’s something a slightly older student can often navigate well). The students I have met coming into four-year college from the community college system have generally been some of the best students I have known.
And as far as quality? At least with the online/hybrid courses, the better community colleges have been putting us to shame both in breadth and quality of offerings. Add to that that as the distributed flip takes root as a model, they may be participating in the same classes as their peers at four-year, Masters, and Research institutions.
That, to me, looks like disruption, much more than any individual piece of software using “adaptive intellegence” or any free online course. It’s hard to explain, but I can feel a cultural shift where parents need not be ashamed of sending their kids to community college (and graduating them debt-free) compared to parents that encourage their children to take on debt to go to that dreamy four-year experience. Economically, students with associates degrees are actually already outperforming students with BA’s in the labor market (albeit due to compositional effects).
Once the cultural shift happens, once community college becomes seen as something other than a second-rate experience, things can happen rather quickly. Unlike MOOCs or ccompetency-based credit, everything is already wired up to go for credentialing. And while the effects won’t be catastrophic, the institutions that want to remain relevant would do well to look at the community college market now, and think about what lessons they can learn from it.
Anyway, that’s the *short* version.
[Incidentally, Jeff Selingo (@jselingo) wrote something very smart about this a little bit ago, but I'm having trouble tracking it down now (it may be behind a paywall or nag-wall).]