Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies (Harvard Business Review, 1995) in MOOC Terms

One of the common citations in xMOOC artifacts and discussion is the idea of xMOOC as a disruptive technology.  The concept, developed by Harvard Business professor Clayton Christensen, is tossed into discussion as if it’s vital reading I should already know…none of the authors do more than give a cursory definition to the concept in abstract fashion rather than concrete, and in all of the articles I have read, I don’t see consensus on the definition.  This makes me think several possibilities:  1) this is a concept so integral to this field that I should know all about it and am an idiot for not having a foundational knowledge, or 2) this is a concept not fully understood but thrown out there in a way that sounds erudite but lacks foundation.  I think it’s a mix of both.  As a learner struggling to grasp a topic (my background is in both media and social sciences, not business), the best way is to personally dive in rather than rely on the previews of others.  At the same time, it took those previews to get here, so perhaps this review can help others start to nail out a more complete definition on the topic.  

I realize my first introduction to this topic was in a Leadership course during my doctoral work.  We looked at two coffee companies:  Nescafe and Starbucks.  One owned the world of fine coffee and believed that sticking to their model would continue to bring customers, another sought out new markets for beans as well as customers, new products, and a new method for getting quality coffee to individuals.  Through forward-thinking, Starbucks became the name in high-quality coffee (perhaps not gourmet, but considering the market share I doubt Starbucks minds), while Nescafe still exists but at nowhere near the influence or monetary level.  That was the only bit we discussed, however; there was no linking to Christensen in that discussion.

  • A bit of history: Christensen starts the article looking at the reason that leading companies do not keep up with trends, and sees a paradox:  by serving a distinct population with distinct needs, these companies fail to see the needs of a more general populous.  Nescafe had the gourmet market, not seeing an upper end outside of it.  IBM had government contracts and did not see the need for microcomputers.  Keeping up with demand in the existing market does not allow for resources to go towards new markets.
  • Quoting the article:  The technological changes that damage established companies are usually not radically new or difficult from a technological point of view.  This would make sense in terms of MOOCs.  The technology is not new at all, whether it be more complex like LMS or streaming video, or the basics like social networking and even BBS.  How do the changes damage established companies?  First, they typically present a different package of performance attributes – ones that, at least at the outset, are not valued by existing customers. Second, the performance attributes that existing customers do value improve at such a rapid rate that the new technology can later invade those established markets. Looking at this from the MOOC perspective, I see a correlation to the first point…the access of courses is unique and is not valued* by the existing customers.  The second one is the question — but that’s on a theoretical level from an edu perspective rather than the presumed systematic perspective of the xMOOC developers…the performance attributes of a learner would be better learning.  At present, this technology is (at the best) same learning for more people, and without a theoretical foundation of what MOOCs are and what they are supposed to do, measuring learning is impossible.
  • Performance Trajectories is a term Christensen takes time to define.  What is the improvement of the product, and how can it be measured?  Christensen uses disk-drive technology to show growth, and then goes into more hardware-based examples.  Performance trajectories thus have inherent to their definition an assessment tool.  I don’t see this with MOOCs.  Perhaps the performance trajectory for the MOOC is the volume of student, but then retention becomes an issue, and we still haven’t dealt with that pesky learning definition.  Cost could be another performance trajectory (as in lowering), but then we need to determine the value of a degree; there is an abstract value of a degree from an accredited institution, but we still don’t have a credentialing system for the MOOCs.
  • Now we get to disruptive technologies, and a great line here (that I had not come across in any other materials):  disruptive technologies introduce a very different package of attributes from the one mainstream customers historically value, and they often perform far worse along one or two dimensions that are particularly important to those customers.  xMOOC developers are not discussing this at present, but it’s important to look at.  What do mainstream higher ed customers value?  Well, they value the output — the degree.  We could argue that they value the experience, which means we are setting the customer into that traditional higher ed model that has been consistently chipped away at both through historical distance ed programs (global) as well as the proliferation of for-profit degree and credential institutions (mostly US).  If those are our variables, the different package really pinpoints access (both for individuals as well as the asynchronous nature, creating a greater pool of prospective customers students). Again, there is no difference in the theoretical approach to learning.  From a hardware perspective, this might not matter — personal photocopiers only changed the method of delivery in the photocopy industry.  But in an intangible world like education, if we believe that changing the method of delivery is the only valued variable, we are ignoring numerous fields of study that say otherwise.  The classroom experience is more than listening to a lecture, the educational experience more than fulfilling assessment exercises.  I don’t know if we can extract structure as the predominant issue and expect to get results.  We need to know what results we are looking for before we can go down that road, however.
  • It’s important to note the difference between sustaining tech and disruptive tech.  From the article:  sustaining technologies tend to maintain a rate of improvement; that is, they givecustomers something more or better in the attributes they already value.  To me, the variable here is value.  On the photocopy example, the existing customers valued their big machines; they didn’t need a slow low-quality machine for their homes.  But thinking about that metaphor…when I’m at a place of business I don’t use a personal copier…I use the mondo one in the office because it’s better and can handle more.  But I see the point — to sustain is to keep improving the existing product on the variables of existing valued attributes.  Disruptive tech gets in that model first by establishing a want in a different customer base, and as they grow from that their growth allows them to match and eventually overtake the traditional customer base.
  • Another important aspect of disruptive technologies is the emerging market.  Piggybacking from above bullet, the existing market is already served by existing and sustaining tech, so there must be an emerging market for the disruptive tech to latch onto.  What is that market for MOOCs?  Well, no published research exists so far on that, but 1) there’s a ton of existing Big Data (with more and more to be collected), and 2) the xMOOC developers discuss their product in terms of global access, so the market becomes those who cannot attend a traditional prestigious university due to location, age or finances.  This ignores the question of admission in the higher education process.  There is also an argument to be made for those without traditional prior knowledge being part of the emerging market, though they are less often mentioned in relation to xMOOC discussion.
  • In discussing Seagate’s difficulty in moving to a smaller disk drive, Christensen mentions how Seagate only got into smaller drives when the existing base wanted it, rather than looking at the needs of the emerging market.  In that mode, the emerging market for xMOOCs would have to be global rather than domestic individuals of different ages and financial means; there has been a demand for distance ed programs for hundreds of years, and doing it online is nothing new.  That, or the thing being sold is the prestigious university online, which means this is a battle of branding moreso than quality (unless involved universities cannot see non-involved universities being competitive due to them not being part of the club).
  • Interesting look at what makes a disruptive tech work — because most don’t.  Success means the disruption must be growing in relation to the growth and movement of the market.  Mainframe computer makers (this was written in 1995) were not hurt because personal computers could do more, but because the market could use personal computers for what they needed, so mainframe became obsolete.  The disruptive tech changed the playing field as it grew, to where the established market saw a benefit in cost and ease by working with the emerging players.  Same with the Nescafe/Starbucks debate.  But for this to work on the MOOC model in the education market, that means there must be a systemic change in how we view education.  Perhaps governmental budget cuts in conjunction with the emerging tech will be that catalyst, but the structure of formal education remains a means to an end, and the noble pursuit of learning for learning’s sake involves theoretical and pedagogical methods not expressed by the xMOOC developers.  So far, however, there is no end point for xMOOC students users participants.
  • Christensen urges disruptive technologies to exist in organizations separate from the established organization.  This makes sense, as disruptive tech does not want to fight existing for resources, as well as issues of institutional memory affecting the development.  This is one place where a number of the xMOOC players (Coursera, edX) are in lockstep, though what happens with Blackboard and other LMS providers remains to be seen.

I’m certain there is a great deal more reading to be done on disruptive technologies; Christensen has turned this HBR article into two books and a host of speaking engagements, and his model likely exists in numerous articles, case studies, papers and dissertations (if anyone has suggestions, pass them along).  With a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of disruptive technology, I wonder how the intangible product of education (which is not only intangible, but is also a societal good) and its multiple aspects and benefits (in higher ed that including socialization of students, development of personal networks, community enrichment, production of arts and scholarly research, to name a few) can be worked under this model.  There is a big difference between a film camera and higher education, so it seems disingenuous to lump Polaroid with xMOOC.  While I can see someone argue that just because higher education has never run on a business model doesn’t mean it can’t now, the multitude of variables and superstructural elements are a unique challenge to any business model.  Calling MOOCs a disruptive technology at this point nullifies a great deal of the importance of education and its institutions.  

FINAL NOTE:  I haven’t gone back through my readings, but I wonder if cMOOC folk use the “disruptive technology” monicker when discussing their model.  Any help, #cfhe12?

4 thoughts on “Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies (Harvard Business Review, 1995) in MOOC Terms

  1. Pingback: Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies (Harvard Business Review, 1995) in MOOC Terms | Hybrid Pedagogy Reading List |

  2. Pingback: Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies in MOOC Terms | Good Pedagogy |

  3. Pingback: Are Moocs disruptive, interesting or just marketing? | About Education, Economics and Policy

  4. Pingback: Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Techno...

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