According to Harvard business professor and best-selling author Clay Christensen, the disruptive effects of the web are being felt the most by the media and advertising industries, but the education business is next in line.

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

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  1. So is Clayton going by Clay now or do you know him well enough to call him Clay?

  2. Medicine will get turned on its head, not a minute too soon. Bio-sensors connected to smart phones will transform many branches of medicine for arcane arts into data intensive sciences. “Big data” and semantic analysis will not be kind to the assembly line medicine being practiced today.

    1. I don’t think technology is turning medicine on it’s head, rather it’s the introduction of lots of places to get medical services delivered. Here in New England you can go to the CVS minute clinic or an urgent care center for a great deal of routine care. That’s business lost to physicians. My physicans group now stays open on weekends to provide urgent care. What’s coming is that physicians cartel is getting broken up. Even at the higher levels of care, you can see that the power of the physician as the gate keeper of individualized care is being undermined by business interests.

  3. Like it or not, the value of an education today is measured by the job opportunities it affords. Those in hiring positions will determine the relative value of an online unsupervised education. Given the “purple squirrel” approach used by firms of all sizes and types, I think the valid inference is that the status quo of a classic university education will be maintained by job market proxy. I just saw an Accenture job posting for an entry level position that not only specified acceptable degree types, but also restricted applications to five specific universities.

    1. Well, yes they can restrict themselves to only people who have graduated from 1 university if they want. As long as they are a completely private, proprietary organization. This is still a free country…within certain guidelines….somewhat….for now. I give them credit for being open and honest about that criteria – therefore not wasting the valuable time and efforts of applicants from other schools or experiences. But they are severely limiting themselves by doing that in today’s market. This can and probably will show itself to be an overly narrow policy. Something will happen where their competition will gain an advantage over them and they will be left wondering how and why. And they will come to find out the competition has people of ALL different backgrounds. Many of the brightest, most creative (and most wealth-generating) people we have in the U.S. today do not have a formal college degree. In fact it is difficult to point to any certain educational institution and say “that’s where all the really successful people are going to come from”. In my opinion, it is not sensible to think that society at large has incorporated technology into work, information, entertainment and personal communications, but they are not going to expect it in education.

  4. Mustafa Al Kubaisi Thursday, February 14, 2013

    Its true the online education foray is getting dominant very fast, but it will be controlled enough to prevent a degree measuring parameters chaos, for example, an online degree from a state university is not even in the same ZIP code of what so called degree from university of Pheonix !!!, Skunk work still easily recognized.
    At the end of the day, what attribute you will need from the degree to go for it, what job you are trying to acomplish when you hire a university to give you a degree, of course its to make your life easier by being able to find the job you want by the time you want, now, Will university of phoenix or any other same level institutes will do that job for you??
    However, an online degree from a well known state univertity will do this job.

  5. We actually talked about higher ed at much greater length than we could include in the Q&A. I think his ideas about hybrid models—taking the best of both online and offline educational systems—is spot on. Glad you found it interesting Mathew.

    We have come all the way from pressed acetate and vinyl records, through tapes, and CDs, and into MP3s and streaming online music services (as noted in the Clay Shirkey article).But vinyl never completely died. And in fact now, it is a lively little niche market for “connoisseurs”. That will be the elite university in the not-too-distant future.

  7. This is the guy that missed the iPhone/Apple disruption so I wouldn’t hold your breath on his predictions!

  8. I couldn’t agree with Prof. Christensen more. Universities are becomig too greedy and expensive. Why can’t a kid in a remote area of Uruguay, for instance, get a totally online degree from Harvard or Stanford for a fraction of what it costs in-person?

    M. R. Pamidi, Ph. D.

    1. Because Harvard and Stanford don’t offer online degrees…they only offer free online content (at no cost). Big difference.

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