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6 Telltale Signs of Disruptive Innovation

Disruption is easy to define but hard to recognize — which is why it's important to experiment and find ways to break free of traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

6 Telltale Signs of Disruptive Innovation

In her keynote address at the CT Forum conference in April, Michelle Weise, senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, offered an insightful analysis of disruptive innovation — perhaps one of the most-used and least-understood buzzwords in higher education today. (For our write-up of her talk, see "Disrupting Higher Education" in our June issue.)

Weise gave an overview of what the term means and how it has played out in higher ed and other industries, but at the core of her talk were six defining characteristics of disruptive innovations — telltale signs worth posting on the wall of every IT leader's office:  

  1. They target people who are nonconsumers or who are overserved by existing products.
  2. The innovation is not as good as existing products, as judged by historical measures of performance.
  3. They're simpler to use, more convenient or affordable.
  4. There is a technology enabler that can carry the new value proposition upmarket.
  5. The technology is paired with a business model innovation that allows it to be sustainable.
  6. Existing providers are motivated to ignore the new innovation and are not threatened at the outset.

It's that last one that makes disruptive innovation so insidious — by its very nature, it's likely to be underestimated and ignored, making it difficult to spot.

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Weise pointed to for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix as an example that meets all six criteria. Massive open online courses also come to mind. But these are fairly obvious candidates — less dangerous, perhaps, than innovations not yet on higher education's radar. What else could be out there, unseen, quietly changing the business of teaching and learning?

There is no concrete answer, and that's exactly why it's so important for higher ed institutions to experiment with new technologies, innovate and think about ways to break free of traditional strategies. You never know where the next disruption might be developing.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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