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Given all the talk about MOOCs of late here's an article titled The Siege of Academe by Kevin Kerey that speaks to the issue (especially in the latter half of the article): I was especially engaged by the following passage where Kerey speaks in passing about Clayton Christensen's distinctions between "disruptive" and "sustaining" innovation: "I’m in San Mateo, twenty miles south of San Francisco, at the offices of Learn Capital, an education-focused venture capital firm. Having driven down from the city in Michael’s Honda CRV, he and I take the elevator to the second floor, where one of the firm’s partners, Nathaniel Whittemore, brings us into a glass-walled conference room..... I ask Nathaniel about how Learn Capital sees the world. Is the real money to be made, per Marc Andreessen, in eating the existing education industry? Or will it be in providing service to the industry, helping them do what they do better? In terms popularized by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, this is the difference between “disruptive” and “sustaining” innovation.....Nathaniel says that’s an “ideological” question." Kerey doesn't go on to say what Nathaniel means by ideological which begs a couple of questions: What is "ideological" about the question Kerey is asking? And secondly, how would subscribers to this listserv answer Kerey's question? That is to say, as technologists within the university are we in the business of promoting disruptive or sustaining innovation? And, following Christensen's paradigm, is the MOOC a disruptive or sustaining initiative? Cheers, Luke ********** Participation and subscription information for this EDUCAUSE Constituent Group discussion list can be found at


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Luke - thank you for sharing.  I very much enjoyed it.  I am guessing that the question is "ideological" in so far as the speaker is referring to intent and objectives of the innovation(s) being discussed.  That is, it is perhaps a matter of perspective.

While reading the article I found myself wondering if this is really about the University's ability to adopt and adapt rapidly coupled with the rate and scope of non-trivial change being presented.  Most of the examples of "innovative" software, technologies and services provided in the article are poking at one part of the bundle of services and dependencies that represent the university.  Is it possible that this type of innovation provides traditional universities with an advantaged position to evolve iteratively rather than being organizations created from the ground-up? Might we be looking out 20 years and seeing many of the same (university) names behaving differently as they digest the changes that makes sense, and let the rest pass by. 

So, to respond to your second question, in my opinion, it is our "business" to make all change sustaining.  If so, we will end-up sustaining organizations that can adopt and adapt very well - and that look over time, quite different.

Cheers - Ken

Luke, As coincidence would have it just after I read your note, Bob Solis, University of Massachusetts, Vice President & CIO, flicked over, and highlighted, two interesting articles from the weekly summary of Campus Technology Magazine. These two stories represent examples Christensen's disruptive and sustaining forces. Here it would seem, while Cal State is using Pearson to sustain their (and higher ed's) traditional role as an education provider, the Global University is positioned to disrupt the traditional higher education model, however in both cases technology is the enabler. New Global University To Be Both Free and For-Profit A former digital media czar and small town mayor are working together to launch a new fully online university that will be free for students. The two founders, CEO Curtis Pickering and President Scott Hines, said they expect to open World Education University at the end of October or beginning of November 2012. California State University Prepares To Launch Online Program The second-largest university system in the United States, California State University, is launching a new, fully online program called Cal State Online, which will offer a selection of undergraduate degree completion and professional master's degree programs. Patrick || |||| ||| || | | || ||| || ||| || | | ||| || ||| || Patrick Masson Chief Technology Officer, UMassOnline The University of Massachusetts, Office of the President 333 South St., Suite 400, Shrewsbury, MA 01545 (774) 455-7615: Office (774) 455-7620: Fax (970) 4MASSON: GoogleVoice UMOLPatMasson: AIM massonpj: Skype Web Site: Blog: ________________________________________
I would argue that we need to be at least one foot in the door of the room of disruptive technology (that was a bad metaphor, sorry, but I stuck with it).

The classic example of disruptive technology is the transistor.  Unto itself, it was just a new way of doing something that tubes did.  It was much smaller, more effiicient, etc, but same function.  But it enabled a whole slew of products that just blew up the whole landscape of the electronics world.  Think about the impact of the Sony Walkman.  That is THE product that took advantage of the disruptive technology.  The transistor enabled the Walkman. 

In this sense, the rise of MOOC is not a disruptive technology, per se.  It's a by-product of several different technologies, several of which have been disruptive but most of which have been sustaining technologies.  Server processing power, rise of truly high speed bandwidth, improvements in UI design and UX - whatever.  That's all sustaining.  They are the evolution of existing technologies.  


For the most part, I think we are in the field of promoting sustaining innovation.  We must support innovation, and we have to keep things moving forward.  Thus sustaining innovation.

But we should spend a consistent amount of time on watching for disruptive technology and how we might then use it in ways that change the landscape.  Drifting far afield of MOOCs, I think maybe virtualization of systems was a disruptive technology.  Implementation on the large scale has changed how we think of data centers.  Virtual desktops are really a sustaining innovation on top of virtual systems.  The technology behind SSDs and Flash memory is probably disruptive, and the implementation of that kind of memory in SANs is exciting.  Throw virtual desktops together with SSD and you are exploiting two sustaining technologies that are based on disruptive ones - SANs with SSD, and desktops on top of virtualization.  We need to be supporting these efforts.  

Disruptive technologies are rare and honestly are usually small things.  Implementation is where the real chaos begins.  And we should, I think, support some of that chaos to the benefit of education, where experimentation and innovation (of all kinds) is more welcome than in some other fields.  


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Great insights. Apropo of this thread, this past Sunday's NYTimes Magazine had a cover story on the ouster of Pres Sullivan at UVA. (cf. Anatomy of a Campus Coup ). MOOCs and disruptive innovation come up in that piece too with the board as a big fan of Christensen's ideas: "What had the board so worried? In late May, as she prepared to remove Sullivan, Dragas e-mailed a board colleague a link to a Wall Street Journal column, beneath the subject line: “Why we can’t afford to wait.” The article described a joint venture that offers free, open online courses. In the last year, Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T. and other elite schools have moved aggressively into this arena, drawing significant global audiences, if no actual revenue. While many veteran professors roll their eyes at predictions that online learning will transform the structure of universities, to certain segments of the donor community — the Wall Street and Aspen Institute types — higher education looks like another hidebound industry awaiting creative destruction. “If you’re not talking about it,” says Jeffrey Walker, a UVA fund-raiser and a former JPMorgan financier, “what’s wrong with you?” This discussion has been influenced by the ideas of Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and guru of “disruptive innovation,” the concept that established companies are often overtaken by upstart competitors because they are incapable of embracing new technologies. In his book “The Innovative University,” Christensen argues that higher education could go the way of America’s steel industry. Dragas told me she found Christensen’s ideas extremely compelling." Later on in the piece, the journalist highlights one board member who calls that view into question: Sullivan supporters see a more subtle chain of causality. Ligon, a former board member and a successful entrepreneur himself — he was a founder of CarMax, a used-car chain — said he thought the board members had fallen under the influence of high-finance mentality. “Private-equity and hedge-fund guys typically come into a situation of mediocrity, where rapid change may result in a profit,” he told me. “When you’re talking about a well-established university with a strong reputation that is trying to enhance that reputation, that’s not how the game is played.” “Private-equity and hedge-fund guys typically come into a situation of mediocrity, where rapid change may result in a profit,” he told me. “When you’re talking about a well-established university with a strong reputation that is trying to enhance that reputation, that’s not how the game is played.” I guess my question is whether Christensen's paradigms can be applied wholesale in academia. And whether there are any lessons to be learned about Christensen's concepts from the UVA case. Cheers, Luke Fernandez
I think that the concepts from Christensen are very valid and should be heeded in academia.  But I think that it is too easy and in fact inappropriate to label MOOCs as truly disruptive.  They are in fact sustaining innovation and of course an established institution should keep up to date with that.  It's kind of the whole private-equity mentality comment made in the article.  We should be thinking about it because it's a natural offspring (I avoid the word evolution because that implies that it's "out with the old and in with the new/evolved") of traditional models of delivery.  It doesn't mean that if we don't embrace it we'll be left behind like RCA and its tube-based radios were by Sony and the Walkman (I know, my timing is off on the two products but hopefully you get the idea).  

One of the issues that Dragas in particular seemed to suffer from is a black and white perspective on changes like the rise of MOOCs.  If you aren't doing it to a large extent (there was a lot of emphasis on the rate of change at UVA, not just change or not), then you are falling behind (not possibly falling behind, but definitely so).  

I just think it's more subtle.  If we aren't thinking about the changing landscape of education (and how technology plays various roles) then we are in fact falling behind.  But MOOCs are just part of a "normal" and predictable change, rather than a big disruptive one, IMO.  

The hard part and in many ways the real heart of your question is how are we to actually see these disruptive changes coming towards higher ed.  We can support them mostly through flexibility and organizational agility.  But we also can't invest in every "new thing" out there just because it seems like a viable use of a disruptive technology (no one wants to be the one that spent everything on betamax).  I do think that sometimes you have to make a gamble and see how it plays out - if you aren't taking risks, then you aren't doing your job, etc.  I think I mentioned SSDs before - being an early adopter of SSDs in SANs (SSD being the disruptive technology, implementation in SANs the sustaining innovation of storage products) for super high performance would have been quite expensive (not that it's cheap to do SSD now) but might have yielded significant results and you'd be ahead of others by a few years and perhaps already moving onto the next generation of SSD storage implementations. Or perhaps one should have waited a bit longer for the slightly-larger drives to come along...