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November 14, 2015
Frank Pasquale on The End of College : Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere
The University of Nowhere: The False Promise of “Disruption”
FOR TWO DECADES, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has advanced a sweeping account of “disruption” as an explanation for business history, and as the key to its future. According to disruption theory, nimble competitors replace established firms by developing rival products. Initially cheap and of poor quality, these rival products end up dominating markets. From Amazon to Zillow, disrupters reign.
Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation electrified the consultant class, and its influence soon extended far beyond business. Thought leaders aimed to disrupt government. Christensen co-authored books telling hospital and university leaders to shake up their operations. His public statements now suggest that virtually every facet of human existence can be improved by implementing disruptive principles. Why, he asks, buy a single painting for your apartment, when digital gallerists can email your flatscreen “a fresh piece of art” every three weeks? Disruption has become a theory of everything, set to catapult Christensen to guru status as scholar, consultant, and sage.
And yet the last couple of years have not been kind to him. Historian Jill Lepore’s devastating New Yorker profile portrayed Christensen as an academic lightweight, who downplays evidence that large, stable companies can sustain their business models. Business researchers Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh have strengthened Lepore’s case. As Lee Vinsel observes, they found “only 9 of 77 cases that Christensen used as examples of disruptive innovation actually fit the criteria of his own theory.” Given these embarrassments, it may be time to consign “disruption” to the dustbin of stale management theory buzzwords.
But Christensen’s zombie ideas are too politically convenient to disappear — and particularly so in the education sector. Tax-cutting, budget-slashing politicos are always eager to hear that education could be much, much cheaper. The Clayton Christensen Institute had a starring role at a recent Senate Hearing attacking traditional accreditation standards. In Silicon Valley and Wall Street, talk of “disrupting education” mobilizes investors and excites startups. Kevin Carey’s The End of College is the latest book to seize the imagination of disrupters. It touts massive changes for post-secondary education.
How massive? For Carey, a great deal of instruction should be commoditized, with free or near-free content as accessible as YouTube videos of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Most research universities shouldn’t just shrink. They should “reform” themselves to the point of unrecognizability, or dissolve into the internet ether. We should not mourn them, says Carey, but “shatter” them outright; they are, he believes, “grotesquely expensive and shamefully indifferent to undergraduate learning.”
Carey hopes that online courses combined with tiny, impromptu “learning communities” will end college as we know it, replacing it with a “University of Everywhere.” His utopian vision, however, is premised on inconsistent values and aims. The likelier result of his policies is a University of Nowhere by way of shifty firms marketing ad hoc vocational education of questionable value or relevance.
The Two Faces of Kevin Carey
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