Clayton Christensen hates you and other observations.

I know this article about our old friend Clayton Christensen is old news now, but I was caught up in the end of the semester when it came out and have only gotten to writing about it now:

In a speech Thursday at’s Higher Education Summit here, Christensen spoke at length about disruption theory broadly and discussed its application to colleges and universities. Higher education, he explained, was among the industries that “for several centuries was not disrupted,” but “online learning has put a kink in that.”

Technology itself is never the disruptor, Christensen said; a new business model is. But “it is technology that enables the new business model to coalesce, and that’s what is happening in higher ed now….

“If you’re asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade — I might bet that it takes nine years rather than 10,” he said, to a smattering of gasps among the nearly 1,500 attendees.

So there’s absolutely no evidence yet of disruptive innovation in higher ed yet Christensen doubled down on his theory? What else did you expect from someone who runs “a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.” Whose world is the Christensen Institute allegedly improving?:

Our higher education research aims to find innovative solutions for a more affordable, sustainable postsecondary system that better serves both students and employers.

Faculty? Not so much.

Reading Christensen party like it’s 2012 again reminded me of the first online conversation I had with Stephen Downes way back in those days before I even knew who Stephen Downes was. This is me in the comments to that old post, after Downes criticized me for being more interested in my own job than in universal education:

I’m certainly not going to remain in the global one percent if you succeed in making my job obsolete. Yes, there will still be a Harvard and there will still be a Yale, but state regional comprehensive universities will dry up like dust when the government funding moves entirely online.

You seem to welcome that, Stephen. Do you expect the tens of thousands of people who depend on these kinds of universities and the communities that depend on those universities to welcome that too? [A]m I supposed to just sit quietly and take one for the team?

But forget about me for a moment. If half the colleges in America actually closed, as Christensen STILL predicts, not just faculty would suffer. Administrators, staff, cafeteria workers…all of them would become jobless whole college towns would keel over and die without the economic engine that the local university currently provides. Billions of dollars that would have stayed circulating in those communities would be sucked up and distributed among investors and programmers in Silicon Valley. How exactly does this outcome serve those area employers? And what good is your online college degree if your hometown just died in the process of making it affordable.

Around the same time that Christensen Chicken-Littled himself onto the front page of IHE again, I marked yet another keynote by Audrey Watters which I thought might be useful at some point in the future (and, of course, it was). She’s talking about a different subject here, but I think this principle remains applicable:

Our institutions do not care for students. They do not care for faculty. They have not rewarded those in it for their compassion, for their relationships, for their humanity.

Christensen claims his schtick is non-partisan and improving the world, but it’s really just warmed over Social Darwinism from the late-nineteenth century.  You can dress up Herbert Spencer in the fig leaf of social science and technological philanthropy, but that doesn’t make his core philosophy any less cruel.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

1 comment

[…] Disruption is a term I’m already getting sick of, as it’s almost never about the technology itself. […]

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