Sometimes, Disruption Begins in the Middle

Bob Sevier

Bob Sevier

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At a recent president’s conference I had time to share lunch with a colleague who has both a long view (looking backward) and a keen interest in where higher education is going. I always find his insights and ideas interesting and worthwhile.

As we ate, he asked if I was familiar with Clayton Christensen and his work on disruption. I assured him that I was, including his major tome, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out

My colleague then posed an interesting question. “What,” he said, “do you think is the major disruptor in higher education?”

Without missing a beat I said, “Students.”

I think he was surprised. I’m guessing he thought I would say something like technology or the University of Phoenix or perhaps the federal government.

I went on to say that much of what is innovative in higher education—online, MOOCs, the Kahn Academy, and almost everything else—actually occurs when students’ frustration with the educational status quo opens the door for new ideas and new entrants.

It is important to remember that for hundreds of years, colleges have decided what’s best for students and for hundreds of years students pretty much acquiesced. Historically, the power has always been with the educational provider. Of late, however, that power has begun to shift and much of it now rests with the educational consumer; consumers who are very interested in making their voices heard.

My colleague said this reminded him of the movie, Network. If you will recall, Network, released in 1976, was about an increasingly irrational anchorman who, during one broadcast, challenged viewers to walk to their windows, throw up the sash, and yell out, “I’m mad as…,” well, you remember the rest.

I’m not sure that today’s students are opening their windows, but in increasing numbers they are blogging and texting and venting about how college is taught, what is taught, and how much colleges charge. They worry about debt. They worry about the relevance of their degree in the job market. And they are talking about the need for greater use of technology, more access, and more direct involvement in decisions about the courses they take, the degrees they earn, and the opportunities they want to have after graduation.

Amidst this din, the innovators at the edge are listening, and many are offering products and services and approaches that will disintermediate many traditional schools.

But what is gratifying, and worth noting, is that some—and an increasing number of traditional schools—have begun to respond to the entreaties of their students and alumni and donors. They have chosen to adapt to today’s marketplace rather than to simply rail against it. Witness, for example, the amazing successes of Grand Canyon University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Drake University. These are three amazingly different schools in completely different circumstances who shared one belief: It is better to disrupt than be disrupted.

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