There’s quite a bit of discussion about how MOOCs are disruptive, but it’s useful to remember that term “disruptive innovation”–coined by Clay Christensen–has a specific meaning in an economic context.  In this Wired article, Christensen and Michael Horn examine how MOOCs fare against the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation:

Serves non-consumers. MOOCs are limited in the services they provide compared to traditional colleges, yet at the same time they are free and more accessible — which allows them to serve those who couldn’t otherwise access traditional higher education. Similarly, Toyota’s early cars didn’t match the reliability of Detroit’s automobiles. But they were more affordable and convenient, so the company first served people (“non-consumers”) for whom the alternative was, quite literally, nothing.

Marches upmarket. Instead of serving the same customers at the outset or competing head-on with established products, disruptive innovations improve over time to march upmarket. Eventually the quality becomes just good enough for the established customers to flock to it. It’s worth noting that the upmarket march is enabled by some key technology — such as bandwidth, video quality, online sharing tools, etc. — which is why MOOCs may now be having their moment, even though they’ve been around for years.

Redefines quality. Eventually, the disruptive innovation changes the very definition of quality in a marketplace. In the current university system, for example, most faculty are rewarded for the quality of their research — not for the quality of their teaching. But the medium and scale changes things; in the future, courses might be offered based on employer demand, not faculty research interests. MOOCs are already evolving in some ways away from traditional educational constraints: Udacity’s courses, for example, have shifted from a time-controlled to a more competency-based learning model that takes advantage of the online medium.
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