Michelle Weise

Michelle Weise on Disruptive Innovation

Dr. Michelle R. Weise is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she specializes in the higher education sector. Weise works to inform policymakers, community leaders, academic administrators, and innovators on the theory of disruptive innovation and its unique ability to clarify our understanding of the changing academic terrain in higher education.

Weise was part of a panel at the South by Southwest education conference that addressed the topic, “Can the Liberal Arts Survive in an Age of Innovation?” Her commentaries and research on competency-based learning, student-learning outcomes, workforce solutions, and public-private partnerships have been featured in a number of publications and outlets, such as Inside Higher Ed, New England Journal of Higher Education, USA Today, and National Journal.

Prior to joining the Institute, Weise served as the vice president of academic affairs for Fidelis Education. She has also held instructional positions, serving as a professor at Skidmore College (New York) as well as an instructor at Stanford University (California).

Weise received her bachelor’s degree in literature from Harvard University (Massachusetts) and both her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Stanford University in English literature. In 2005, she was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to South Korea.

Michelle, please start by telling us a little bit about the origin and nature of your work at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, and he came up with this idea as he was studying for his doctoral degree at Harvard during the ’80s. Basically, he was trying to understand why it was so difficult for major corporations and businesses to sustain success. What he discovered was that a disruptive innovation transforms a product or service that used to be very complicated and expensive and makes it initially affordable and accessible to a whole new population of people.

This dynamic of disruption helps people understand why major industries and companies have collapsed over time—why, for instance, mini-mills disrupted the integrated mills in the steel industry.

It helps describe why a lot of newspapers have gone out of print today. It helps us understand how personal computers disrupted mainframes and mini-computers in the computing industry. It explains why Toyota’s Corona was really the source of what basically bankrupted Detroit’s auto industry. So it’s a fascinating dynamic that really helps us understand the kinds of business decisions that managers have to face as they try to figure out how to sustain success.

The Institute has been around for about six years now. My executive director Michael Horn co-wrote Disrupting Class with Clayton Christensen, and after the publication of that book they decided to co-found this think tank, which is non-partisan and non-profit, devoted to using the lens of disruptive innovation to understand the pressing problems of different social sectors. One of the other founders was Jason Hwang, who co-wrote The Innovator’s Prescription with Clayton Christensen. Those two books were published around the same time, and so they created a think tank that addresses these two verticals of health care and education. We’ll be moving on to other verticals, like economic growth, because what’s wonderful about these theories is that they’re not prescriptive to a single industry and you can really use them much more broadly.

My role at the Institute is leading the higher education practice. Disrupting Class, the book, was mostly about the K-12 experience, and the original work of the Institute in the education practice began in the K-12 arena. So we have a dedicated team that is researching that specific topic. And then just recently over the last year and a half we’ve built out the higher education practice. There are so many things coming to a head right now in higher education, and so many different stakeholders have been reaching out to us to understand what they can do to brace for disruption or how they can create regulatory oversight that makes room for innovation, or how we can think about driving down the cost of education and making it more affordable and accessible to more people.

We look at the entire landscape of academia, trying to figure out what trends and what models are interesting enough to take deeper dives into and understand whether there is disruptive potential in something like competency-based education—or as you can imagine from last year, trying to understand how MOOCs fit into the higher education marketplace. We develop blogs and whitepapers and other kinds of publications to help all these different stakeholders understand what’s going on and what they need to be thinking about.

My ultimate goal is hopefully for higher education to become truly much more of an accessible and affordable good at a very high quality. And if you really do use the theories and draw them out and look at the end game, there is a high likelihood that over time, that really is a possibility.

It seems like much of established higher education thinks, “There’s no way MOOCs are going to disrupt my institution.”

I think if an administrator is dismissing a MOOC and saying it’s not disruptive—and they’re using the term “disruptive” in its original meaning—they’re probably right. In fact, if you actually use the different markers of disruptive innovations and align what MOOCs are doing alongside those different markers, really MOOCs haven’t yet figured out what their disruptive foothold is going to be. And when it comes to disruptive innovations, you really need to think about what we call non-consumption. It’s basically this whole new population of people whose alternative is nothing at all.

So people keep asking, “Is traditional education going to be disrupted by online education?” What they’re really missing is that actually, the process of disruption has already begun. It started basically in 1989 when fully online universities like University of Phoenix and DeVry started to emerge.

When people think of disruptive innovations, they don’t think of University of Phoenix as a disruptive innovation because they want to foist an evaluative judgment on that product and say, “Well, that’s not going to disrupt what I’m doing at my traditional institution because that is not a great higher education ‘product.’ ” And so there’s this sense that this kind of “inferior product” cannot be a disruptive innovation. But really, what made University of Phoenix a disruptive innovation is that they were gearing their teaching and learning process toward a whole new set of students who didn’t have access to higher education. These were working adults who found the idea of commuting to a campus very difficult because they had so many other kinds of commitments, like work and family. And so they were actually willing to pay a premium for what others in established institutions might see as sort of a low-quality product because it provided convenience and flexibility.

That’s the thing that people don’t understand about disruptive innovations—that the basis of performance is very different from what the leaders are using as their basis of performance. So when people are saying, “Oh, that sounds like a low-quality product,” or “It wasn’t a very good higher education product,” that’s precisely the point, actually: Just good enough is okay when you’re trying to cater towards these non-consumers whose alternative is really nothing at all.

And so what we see in MOOCs is that you have a whole slew of people taking these courses who already have a degree. And so MOOCs haven’t yet been able to focus on who their target consumers are for this type of education. Only recently have we seen slightly more strategic bundling of courses, like Coursera and Wharton’s “Foundations of Business” courses or MITx and edX’s logistics courses. The thing that we see as most potentially disruptive is Udacity’s most recent turn toward uplifting the notion of vocational training and really building out something like a big data and data science track—and building those kinds of programs with major companies like Facebook or Google. They’re being much more conscious of where that non-consumption is happening.

If you think about the people who are going to take those kinds of courses, those are people who probably don’t really need the increased amenities in a traditional institution, and they don’t really need a four-year education for the social growth that occurs during those four years, and they’re probably not looking to be mentored necessarily by a professor who is at a large research university or very much at the forefront of research in a particular field. These are people who are looking to skill up for a particular position. So that’s where disruption might be beginning, but I think to say that MOOCs are disruptive would be misusing the term.

What’s great, though, about MOOCs is that they have elevated the image of online learning because suddenly now that prestigious universities are thinking more carefully about online learning, that sort of moves down the chain of rankings and the middle tier or even the lower tier of colleges are looking to the leaders and saying, “Okay, maybe I should be thinking about how I think about online learning, and maybe I shouldn’t be dismissing this use of technology.” I think it’s something we should be very grateful for in terms of really stepping out of the traditional “sage on the stage” way of thinking about learning. And so that’s really important because it’s transformed the way people are thinking about pedagogy—but that’s not in itself a disruptive innovation.

Do you think there’s something unsettling about the term itself when you put together the two words? Because people always see “innovation” as a good thing, but “disruptive” is like a scary thing, so …

Exactly. Yeah, and people think of disruptive innovations as inherently good or bad, but they’re not. I was just talking to Clay about this. He regrets, actually, calling it a “disruptive innovation” because the term is misused so widely, and I think the connotations of it get in the way of the precise use of the term. Andy Grove of Intel had called disruptive innovation “the Christensen Effect” instead, and if we had called it that, there might be a little less confusion around what these innovations really are!

Are some institutions more predisposed to benefit from the lessons to be learned from disruptive innovators? What about traditional colleges that don’t have national name-brand recognition and are getting squeezed by economic conditions to the extent that their entire operating model is at risk?

I think it’s smart for those institutions that are being squeezed financially to be thinking about what their options are. Because really, the problem in higher education is that for so long there has been this drive to move up-market and move up in the rankings. And so lots of institutions, even regional or state comprehensive universities, and even community colleges, have these different catalysts through the ranking processes that have driven them to invest a lot more money and resources into things that really had nothing to do with their original missions. And so it’s a great moment for a lot of these institutions to step back and think, “Am I really able to deliver this vast array of educational programs all at the same high quality? Are we really fit to emulate a research institution? What really is the ultimate goal of having faculty members engaged in research, or should we have them focus more on teaching?” I think it’s going to be really important for institutions to be critical of themselves and think, “Do I really need to implement this, or am I doing this in order to emulate an institution that we could potentially never really be?”

And you mentioned the constraints of the business model of higher education. When you take an institution and divide it up, really the breakdown comes down to research, teaching, and the social growth component for students. These are the three core value propositions of a college or a university. And each of those value propositions has its own business model. In order to deliver high-quality research, there are all kinds of resources and processes involved to create some kind of revenue formula for that business model to work. And you have three different business models like that working within a single institution. So in order to get all of those into some kind of working balance, it takes a lot of time, and it’s taken a lot of different iterations for that stability to actually occur. So when an innovation like a MOOC or competency-based learning comes to the fore, it’s no wonder that the institution’s first reaction is to reject it. Because it’s not going to fit into the existing working formula; it’s just going to wreak havoc on that stability that’s so prized and was so difficult to attain.

What has really brought this problematic structure into relief is the existence of online education providers, such as for-profit education providers that focus solely on the teaching component. They are simplifying the whole business model and foregoing the social growth component by addressing often working-adult populations—these are people who don’t need extra amenities and services around socialization. They want to learn a specific skill or about a specific discipline in order to further their careers or change or launch their careers. This new model crystallizes how complicated and strange the current system of education is in terms of trying to balance all of these very different business models and maintain that very delicate balance.

So it’s going to be critical for institutions that are foreseeing the potential of being strapped in the future, or that are currently financially quite unstable, to probably trim down what it is that they do and really focus in on what they can deliver and how they can stand out from the competition. For some, that might be focusing solely on teaching.

For others, it might be bearing down on their research or creating a unique kind of immersive experience. But the idea that everyone can continue to deliver the same vast array of educational programs is going to end. And that’s probably a good thing, because the original impetus for doing that was the up-market pull and the lure of prestige and higher rankings.

It’s going to be a tough sell for these institutions—I’m just going to say, for the sake of argument, lower- or middle-tier schools that are charging hefty tuition prices—to compete with these alternative learning providers that already exist today. And I’m thinking in particular of some competency-based education providers who have these very brief, targeted, affordable programs that are linked specifically with employers. Let’s just take, for instance, coding boot camps. Basically, you pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, and you go to a specific location, and you spend maybe six to 12 weeks in this very intense, immersive environment where you are just learning how to code maybe 12 hours a day. And by the end of it, you are pretty proficient in what you do, and you’ve learned multiple different programming languages, and you are actually ready to be hired as a developer for a major company. Some of these coding boot camps have ridiculously high job attainment rates of 99% because their students are recruited by places like Adobe and Google, and those students are going on to make an immediate six-figure salary.

So if you think about these kinds of developments, where learning providers are collaborating directly with employers—and Udacity is doing the same thing with their big data and data science tracks—that kind of collaboration where a student knows if they enter this type of learning pathway and they do a good job, there’s a very high likelihood that they’re going to emerge with credentials that are useful to an employer who is already partnering with that learning provider. Against that kind of distribution channel or pathway, it’s going to be really difficult for a traditional lower-tier or middle-tier school, or even some of the elite schools, to sell an education at a prohibitively high price and say to a student, “Come to my school, possibly take on close to $30,000 in debt, spend four years not working and have this enlarged opportunity cost of not working, and potentially come out with no job.” That’s a tough sell to a potential student who is also being lured by these other options. And those options are going to proliferate over time. We are going to see more and more of these kinds of alternative learning pathways.

So if you’re an institution whose revenue is overwhelmingly tuition-driven, going forward do you have any choice but to provide what the marketplace expects from a college degree—which we know from survey data is to be able to get a better job?

Well, it’s clear that there is a widening skills gap between bachelor’s degree holders and employers. But it’s hard to say to an institution, “Yes, you must become more job-oriented and change your curriculum and develop it around jobs.” That’s not necessarily what we’re implying by talking about the skills gap.

But I think that in order for a small liberal arts college, for instance, to present itself to a student and to make its competitive advantage clearer, that translation needs to be much more obvious in terms of what it is that a student can expect out of their degree. We’ve relied in the past on the opacity of a college degree—that embedded within the diploma is this sense of a student’s potential and what they are capable of. But we haven’t ever actually been articulate about what specifically these students come away with. In their resistance to online learning, academics tend to be defensive about how a college education provides these intangibles like critical thinking, analysis, resilience—all of these different kinds of noncognitive and soft skills that are really important for the workforce. But I don’t think a graduate coming out of these programs can articulate how it is that their learning really does translate into skills for their future work.

So when colleges are trying to re-orient themselves, it’s important to figure out what it is that employers need and how it is that what students are doing at the college level really does prepare them for the skills that they might need. And some of this should involve collaboration, because I think there’s a huge amount of miscommunication between these two sides. You have this sort of institutional reticence on the part of professors who resist the notion that they are training students for the workforce. That has got to give a little bit. And I’m saying this as someone who was teaching at one of these small colleges myself. There needs to be more of an openness in terms of embracing that students are coming to college thinking that this is really going to help them launch their careers. And so we do need to help students figure out how that actually works.

And then the onus is also on employers. They can’t simply just lament the fact that their bachelor’s degree holders are not competent or not able to do the jobs well that they pay them to do. They also need to be more articulate about what it is that they want from students. One of the challenges is that a lot of professors, particularly in the liberal arts, often move directly from college to pursuing their doctoral degrees. There’s not a whole lot of industry experience that a history professor or an English professor might have in terms of understanding how the skills that they learn and hone over the years translate readily into workforce competencies. From my own personal experience, it took me a long time to figure out, after working in the private sector, how it was that these different skills that I had learned, worked on, and even taught in school translated into a workforce competency like project management or teamwork or whatever. It takes some experience to begin to understand how these skills translate, and that’s why

I believe that there needs to be some collaboration. Once professors and employers and recruiting managers get together, they can actually start to benchmark and understand what it is that they want out of students.

So it’s not necessarily going to be, “Hey, small liberal arts college, you need to start teaching workforce competencies.” But there needs to be a much clearer translation process that begins now, simply because there is more dissatisfaction on the part of employers that we’re sensing. And you have, right now, 53.6% of college graduates coming out unemployed. So clearly some kind of bridging of that gap needs to be made.

Does that collaborative benchmarking that you’re talking about happen more naturally with competency-based education?

Yes, because when you think about a college transcript, it really is quite uncommunicative to an employer; it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Seeing a list of classes a student takes doesn’t tell me what they can do with their skills and what those skills are. But you have now a bunch of innovators who are trying to take traditional and nontraditional forms of learning and, whether it’s in the form of badges or certificates, make that understandable to an employer. Definitely competencies are very useful in terms of benchmarking skills. I think people misunderstand competencies as somehow much more useful for a STEM discipline or something that is much more quantitative. Northern Arizona University is developing a competency-based education program around a liberal arts degree. Competencies simply break down, in concrete, identifiable ways, what a student is going to have achieved once they complete the learning that goes on in the course. And it can be something as simple as, “By the end of this course, you will be able to describe major traditions in moral philosophy, or you can identify and evaluate ethical arguments, or you can write a cover letter, or you can spot patterns and trends and make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information.”

This is just a really helpful way of understanding what it is that goes on in the course, and I think that benchmarking process is important in terms of being much more conscious about what you’re delivering to the student and what the student is going to emerge with at the end of the course. I’m just thinking back on the way I taught as an English professor and what it meant when I gave a C to a student at the end of the course. Instead of a vague understanding of whether a student was really proficient in what I wanted them to know, in competency-based education you know that this student has mastered or not mastered a certain concept or a certain learning objective. And that’s really important.

But are the current systems we have in place for, among other things, allocating federal financial aid making it prohibitively difficult to implement something other than the credit hour as the unit of learning?

It’s true, even Western Governor’s University has to translate all of their competencies into credit hours for the accrediting agency to really understand what it is that they’re doing. They need to fit the new light bulb into the antiquated socket, but already we’re starting to see a shift in thinking about seat time. It’s definitely going to take some time for regulation to catch up with it, but we’re seeing people trying to understand what it takes to move into this new kind of system. That’s why there are Department of Labor and Gates Foundation grants with Western Governor’s University where you have a whole set of community colleges who are trying to think about, “How do I integrate competency-based education into the culture of my institution?” They’re experimenting by building out one competency-based education program in their institution, and Western Governor’s University is helping them through that process. It’s helping these community colleges figure out, “Okay, what happens to my registration process, my admissions process, the teaching process, the transcription process, all of the different elements of that really complicated business of delivering higher education when I try to switch into a competency-based model?” I think that’s a really important kind of experimentation going on right now, and it’s quite forward-thinking of these community colleges to start dabbling in this shift. For many institutions, this might be a way for them to brace for disruption.

Is there an intersection between competency-based learning and self-paced or customized online learning?

Right now there are a lot of institutions that boast having adaptive learning technologies, or some of them have dashboard analytics. Some are saying they’re self-paced, and some are saying they’re mastery-based. There are all different kinds of online learning happening at different levels of quality.

One of the benefits of being in my position is I get to dive into all of the different learning platforms across the spectrum, from non-profit institutions to upstart innovators.

We’re seeing some impressive online competency-based education that is really taking the best of what is out there in online education and using it to create a system that is not at all based on time. And so a student can take all the time they need to master a piece of material. Plus, it’s customized because through the online dashboard, the people on the back end can understand from the student’s clicks and what they’re messing up on in their low-stakes exams what it is that they need help with.

And so it’s kind of fascinating because the difficulty with MOOCs, as we’ve seen, is that a MOOC really can’t stand on its own. People are realizing they work well in a blended environment when you have a teacher to use the MOOC as a kind of dynamic textbook and then come back and flip the classroom and blend the learning. Then you see some really interesting results, like you did at San Jose State University (California) when they used MITx’s circuits course.

But what’s interesting about competency-based education is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be high- touch in a way that we need it to be for MOOCs. Once the data makes clear to the coach or the instructor that someone is struggling with a certain concept, that’s when the coach can actually intervene. They don’t need to be in the student’s way as much, and they just can intervene only when it’s necessary. So it’s including all of these different important ideas of self-paced mastery, customization, and using technology to create this tutorial environment. Governesses and tutors used to be only for the wealthy, and one- on-one tutorials weren’t easy to replicate and make accessible at scale. But in this kind of context you can because the instructor’s time is being used so much more efficiently. And at the same time, the instructor who is intervening is not responsible for evaluating or assessing the student. You have a different team of people who are there to grade only, and you have a different team of instructional design people who are there to build and curate the content for the course. So there’s this interesting and efficient subdivision of roles in teaching that makes the interaction between the faculty and the student much more valuable because they can really focus in on that intervention or that teaching moment.

That’s where we see a wonderful coming together of all of the best of online learning. And again, to be clear about what a disruptive innovation is, it’s not simply that it’s a cool technology—it also has to operate in a disruptive business model. For competency-based education providers, that means simplifying their business models so they don’t have to think about those other components of research or socialization and can focus solely on the teaching experience.

At the same time, they’re modularizing learning; they’re dividing it up into these pieces of learning that can be cobbled together into different kinds of programs or different kinds of learning pathways, and they aren’t necessarily interdependent. If you think about the way we teach a course now, you can’t easily take out a week of learning and put it into another course. In competency-based modules, however, you can take a specific learning module and have that same module be useful for a master’s of business administration and also for a learning pathway that deals with logistics. That kind of modularization also drives down cost and makes scaling possible.

A good way to think about why this is disruptive is to consider something like Ford’s Model T. Henry Ford took the really amazing technology of the car and drove down the cost of that technology through his creation of the assembly line. Without that, cars would have continued to be out of reach for everyone because they would have been built by artisans—one by one. Instead, through that factory model they were able to generate a lot more cars and drive down the cost of producing those cars. And so technology is not just disruptive on its own; it has to be housed in this very disruptive business model.

That’s why I think it’s so interesting to see what these competency-based education providers are doing. They are thinking about non-consumers and people who are over-served by traditional institutions. They are using technology as an enabler, and then they are narrowing the focus of their business model. It’s perfect convergence of all of these different pieces: technology, nonconsumption, and a disruptive business model.

It seems right now college is so expensive that you can pretty much only do it once in your life. But if what you’re talking about catches on, then maybe learning really could be more lifelong?

Exactly, these new lifelong learning mechanisms don’t even need to take a year. It can be something that you complete in four months while you’re working. And it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a certain number of credit hours—it’s just a combination of pieces of learning that makes sense ultimately to an employer.

Speaking of making sense of learning outcomes, what’s your view of the Obama administration’s plan to create some kind of postsecondary ratings system?

If you think about higher education the way it’s structured now, the huge uproar about for-profit institutions happened because higher education is a game. Those bad actors that we tend to sort of lump in with the for-profit sector were relying on predatory recruitment practices because that’s how the incentives for Title IV eligibility were inadvertently built—for this kind of gaming. And so when it comes to Obama’s college rating plans, I think as well intentioned as this call for transparency about learning outcomes is, we’re going to see institutions try to game the system again.

So the trick is, how can we create a ratings plan that incentivizes institutions to really lower their cost and be more transparent about student outcomes, and how can we reward institutions with federal funding based on a correct set of metrics? The thing that worries me is that already we have colleges and universities opposing this plan and are so against this idea of standardization that they’re creating their own proprietary systems of assessment—Sarah Lawrence is doing it and so are Evergreen State College and Eugene Lang College—and we could potentially end up with 4,000 different ways of measuring student learning outcomes, which is just useless to potential students and also to policymakers. Of course, institutions are doing this because they are fearful that data around these kinds of metrics is going to be misleading.

It’s such a difficult balance: You need institutions to report on these very important learning outcomes like cohort default rates and these things that get at the idea of a return on investment. But you can’t have only some institutions putting up their information and being transparent about it, because then according to the way we’re potentially creating these ratings, they may look bad in comparison to another university that is withholding their information.

So there has to be some kind of forcing function to make universities be much more upfront about displaying this information. But the only way to do that, really, is to tie it to federal funding. And the problem is, we don’t have a robust enough ratings plan to do that.

Plus, it’s not clear whether providing that kind of information is really going to empower students and make them savvier consumers of education. The Department of Education came out with their “shame lists” about college affordability before, and it’s unclear whether those kinds of metrics are even intelligible to their end consumers.

So I think it’s hard, but you’ve got to start somewhere. And it may be that these alternative learning providers who are not eligible right now for Title IV money begin to display their learning outcomes and their data in this way and prove that they actually are delivering a really high-quality education for their students. It may begin with these kind of more marginal education providers being much more transparent about their performance, which may put pressure ultimately on larger and more established institutions.

At the Christensen Institute, we’ve come up with an idea for a quality-value index. It’s an admittedly imperfect way of measuring because it necessitates a pilot program to begin looking at the data and seeing how we can weight certain measurements and metrics to make the rating system work. But first, we need access to the data. The funny thing is, there was a recent report about how college and university leaders are happy to provide some of this information—but then why haven’t they? You don’t see institutions volunteering this kind of information for better consumption unless they have to.

It’s so complicated, but I think it is important that we do begin to benchmark performance for institutions so that a potential student can understand whether it’s going to make sense for them to invest their higher education money at a certain institution.

So that means established institutions are not only facing pressures from disruptive innovators to consider things like competency-based learning, but also from the government via, for example, the College Scorecard’s stated aim to capture data about the employment outcomes of an institution’s graduates?

Yeah. I mean, it’s not going to happen next year, but I think definitely over the next 10 to 15 years, higher education is just going to look so different because of all these pressures coming from all these different angles. It’s going to be very difficult for change to be effected from within an institution—but once a traditional college starts to feel the pressures of affordability, accessibility, flexibility, better uses of technology, cost efficiency, all of these different things bearing down on them, then it’s going to be hard for a lot of institutions to just maintain the status quo.