Disrupting Clayton Christensen's Speech about Disrupting Education

Response to the talk by Clayton Christensen, sponsored by the UVU Faculty Senate (and, given those in attendance, by President Holland and by all the UVU Vice Presidents and Deans and by the UVU School of Business and by the BYU School of Business and by the BYU School of Law, etc.)

As befits a professor at the Harvard Business School, Christensen’s basic question was how universities can teach their students more cheaply and thus make more money and avoid being “disrupted” or “killed” by private universities like the University of Phoenix.

The short answer, according to him, is online and hybrid courses.

MOOCs, for example. It would be much more efficient, he said, for a single MIT physics professor to tape a set of physics 101 lectures that all universities could use for their physics 101 course. Ditto economics 101, and so on. (No thought of the advantage of local professors in first-year classes to inspire and mentor and lead students to majors that match their interests and skills. No thought of the decrease in the size of departments this would cause, of the shrinking of the pool of professors working together in support of a history or English or biology major. No thought of the national effects of drastic reductions in the number of professors working in each discipline. No respect for the advantages our research provides to our society. Simple efficiency is enough.)

He gave the example of his own doctoral student who had returned to Scandinavia to teach business at a university there. When his daughter contracted a rare form of cancer and had to spend a summer in Boston to be treated he still taught his class of 20 students through a form of Skype that included a little robot carrying an IPad around the class and buttons the students could push if they wanted to talk. (Basically a face-to-face class with some expensive machinery involved; clearly not a money-saving or money-making class like a MOOC. But he told the story charmingly.)

When Eugene Seeley of UVU asked him about the difference in motivation between Gene’s own online students and his face-to-face students Christensen answered with a Rhode Island study that showed that all attempts to motivate students with better teaching failed but that giving students a sense at the end of the day that they had accomplished something made them happy. (This was obviously a non sequitur.)

The claim that better teaching is no answer to any question related to the purpose of a university was repeated several times.

For instance, he said, the milkshake. McDonalds was trying to sell milkshakes but attempts to improve the quality of milkshakes made no difference. So Christensen and his colleague studied the issue. The problem was the reason people wanted milkshakes in the morning. It turned out that they wanted something in their free hand while driving to work and it had to make them less hungry. They had no desire for quality, just to have something filling in their hand and stomachs while they drove to work. Knowing that, McDonalds gave up trying to make a better milkshake.

By analogy, students don’t want quality from universities. They want to be certified. They don’t want to graduate. They want to be trained in job skills. Attempts to increase the quality of teaching are wasted efforts since that is not what students want. We should provide what they want. (He ignores the multiple reasons we have universities: preparation for jobs, yes, and also the public good of an educated electorate, the public good of citizens educated in ways that allow them to address societal problems, the personal good of a life examined. He ignores students who are hungry to learn things, who are curious, whose reasons for attending a university are only secondarily to be trained for a job.)

Christensen also attacked the idea that universities should sponsor research by their faculty. It will soon prove to be too expensive, he said. There is too much knowledge already, he said, and there’s no way it can all be taught. (No sense at all for how our teaching is enhanced when our students can see that we ourselves are engaged in the tasks we are trying to get them to perform, that we are skilled at those tasks, that we both do and teach what we do.)

Christensen asserted that it should be a "visible hand" organizing this, as opposed to Smith's "invisible hand." By that he meant that administrators should take over this move to online education, that the people involved in producing quality teaching will never make such a disruptive leap.

That Christensen simply dismissed research on these grounds and summarily dismissed the faculty role in decision making was exemplary for his assumptions and claims as a whole. He has the one theory of “disruption” that has made him famous in business circles. The theory is, perhaps (but probably not), useful as he applies it to his myopic question about universities—how can they keep from being disrupted by the University of Phoenix? (As if we had that problem at UVU with our scrambling to work with the growing number of students who are well aware of the quality we offer versus the quality of a for-profit “university.”) But when use of the theory leads him to discount all that we do and all that we have done for a couple of centuries at European and American and Indian and African and Chinese universities, when it leads him to disrespect our commitment to quality education for our students, when it sets aside all questions of quality whatsoever, then we should set aside his theory with a resonant “No Thanks.”


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