Clay Christensen: First the media gets disrupted, then comes the education industry

Clay Christensen literally wrote the book on disruption, so it’s worth paying attention to him when he talks about where the disruption fueled by the web is going to strike next. The Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma spoke to Jeff Howe — the Wired writer who coined the term “crowdsourcing” — and had some interesting things to say about where disruption is occurring now and where it is likely to strike next.

At one point, Howe asks Christensen to name some industries that are “either in a state of disruptive crisis or will be soon,” and the professor says:

“Journalism, certainly, and publishing broadly. Anything supported by advertising. That all of this is being disrupted is now beyond question. And then I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.”


Christensen recently co-wrote a study for Nieman Reports entitled “Breaking News,” which focused on the media industry and the disruption< that is going on there. He also described some of his thinking about what has happened to the newspaper and traditional media business in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab — in which he said that many newspapers were lulled into a false sense of security and then “very quickly, all of a sudden, you go off the cliff.”

When it comes to education, Christensen said that the availability of fairly high-quality online learning would be the disruptive force because “it will take root in its simplest applications, then just get better and better.”

“You know, Harvard Business School doesn’t teach accounting anymore, because there’s a guy out of BYU whose online accounting course is so good. He is extraordinary, and our accounting faculty, on average, is average. Some [universities] will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person.”

For more on the question of disruption in education, see the ongoing debate between media theorist and journalism professor Clay Shirky and Aaron Bady, a PhD student in African literature at the UC Berkeley. Shirky started it with a piece about the disruptive effect of “massively open online courses” from companies like Udacity, and Bady responded with a rebuttal, followed by a response from Shirky.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Don Skarpo