A good read from the archives: The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong by Jill Lepore in the June 23, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is part of The Annals of Innovation series. I'll give you a hint: Lepore doesn't think highly of Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen. Christensen responded, as reported here, but the issue hasn't died down, as evidence for instance in the documentary Starving the Beast about the push to starve funding for public universities, which I reviewed here. I'll venture that Lepore's arguments would find even more of an audience if the article was published today, since the criticism she levels at Christensen's concept is echoed in interviews of other scholars in Starving the Beast.
The reason why disruptive innovation is so popular, I think, is that everyone - or at least everyone who reads articles or books on innovation - wants to view himself as a David bringing down Goliath through the power of his own ideas. It is aligned with the American myth of the self-made hero and, yes, the cult of entertainment in action movies. Small changes just aren't as exciting, as University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan discovered for herself when she was briefly ousted by the board of visitors for failing to embrace disruptive change. But universities have always been more akin to ocean steamers rather than speedboats. Just the process of approving new courses takes several months because it has to go through multiple committees in order to make sure the students' educational needs will be well served.
To be more like speedboats they would have to implement knowledge delivery models with much shorter lead times from intake to graduation - maybe even one-semester-long programs, or even an emphasis on a piecemeal approach based on courses rather than entire degree programs. But it is likely that the unbundling of degree delivery would also result in drops in related degree programs, leading to lower revenues. It is also worth asking whether people who have only taken one course at a school should benefit from its alumni network or will show enough loyalty to donate to the school later on.
In industry, you can prototype and iterate fast. In academia, you have real people rather than products to focus on, and you are trying to establish a lifelong relationship to help support operations through donations, while keeping your competitive advantage. You want to generate ever-growing enthusiasm for your school and build momentum for always more applications of always more qualified applicants, but you are also looking at a time horizon extending far beyond graduation because a few of those new admits will become multi-million-dollars donors decades from now. I think, if disruptive innovation has a future in academia, that would not be in the industry sense of a newcomer grabbing market share from an incumbent from behind, after years catering to a segment of no interest to the incumbent, but it would be in transforming knowledge delivery through an increased emphasis in continuing education.
Today continuing education is the most obvious revenue-generating stream for most universities, which charge thousands of dollars for a few days on campus, and sometimes it seems that the benefits are a bit one-sided, with universities getting a lot of money and attendees a piece of paper stating they have attended a few days of lecture. It's a bit like the hefty registration fee for a TED conference, which attendees pay to say they have been there. The talks can be interesting, but you pay for the prestige of going rather than the content. (The videos end up online anyway.) Instead of being a pure cash cow taking advantage of people's insecurities and eagerness, continuing education has to be of much better quality for it to be the next disruption in higher ed. But someone will do it and when it does it will be transformative.