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Disruptive education: How MOOCs started a revolution

disruptive education disruptive education
Photo credit:

Remko Van Dokkum

Sarah Porter of the Oxford Internet Institute talks us through what disruptive innovation means for the education industry.

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life” said John Dewey, one of America’s most influential figures on the US educational system.

He stands aligned with many who believe that education is among the most important aspects of human development.

Getting it right, is the topic of much debate. And the consequence of getting it wrong, could well be our undoing.

“It is an incredibly complex system, and certainly not trivial,” says Sarah Porter, best known for her role as head of innovation at JISC and more recently her research at The Oxford Internet Institute on both Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and disruptive education models.

“It shouldn’t be about fleet of foot or how quickly it can progress. Instead, disruptive education should help people realize their potential. As well as keeping the economy afloat”

Rather than using new forms of disruptive education models to overhaul current methods entirely, Porter argues that “small changes, which happen incrementally to create a small step change” should be the approach we take.

“Changes should work together to create larger change. In innovation terms, this is what we call disruption”.

These small incremental changes feed into a wider theory formally known as disruptive innovation.

Clayton Christensen coined the term in his 1997 book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ which looked at what made businesses successful.

Christensen explained that we are trained to focus on what he termed ‘sustaining innovations’, innovations that appear to be the most profitable and that make things incrementally bigger, more powerful and efficient.

This, Christensen argued, can often be problematic.

Such focus on sustaining innovations can leave institutions vulnerable. This often stems from a bottom up approach to change- often catching larger companies, or in this case, providers of higher education off guard, through disruptive education models.

Of late, this is the space where revolution truly occurs. Kickstarter for example, provided a platform for the worlds dreamers. The disrupters, who ‘think differently’. Since its inception in 2009, the crowd funding site has funded over 84,000 projects- the majority of which were started out of the family basement (probably).

The theory however, can be applied to all industries- and Porter, author of ‘To MOOC Or Not To MOOC’ used the disruptive education model of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as the example for the education industry.

MOOCs certainly aren’t new and nor is combining technology with education.

Yet Porter describes how “Even in the early 70’s, there was a fascination with how computers can help the educational process”

The disruptive education model of the MOOC burst onto the scene in 2011 in rather emphatic fashion- “we suddenly saw 100,000 people signing up for a course. MOOCs were picked up by the press everywhere” and were featured in outlets as famous as the New York Times and Time Magazine, making disruptive education an overnight sensation.

It was obvious from the outset- that they were offering something profoundly different. Free education for all with an internet connection.

Vice chancellors at universities across the world were left scratching their heads deciding what to do next.

“Around the time when MOOCs burst onto the scene” says Porter, “I think that at the top of every universities agenda was what do we do now? They were seen as both a threat and an opportunity- are we going to make money out of this? Or do nothing and risk looking like dinosaurs”

Seemingly the titans had been rocked, a David and Goliath situation. MOOCs promised to gallantly break down the doors of exclusive educational institutions. Whilst simultaneously making distance learning available for the masses in a way that hadn’t been seen before.

Porter argues that MOOCs challenged the education industry during its darkest hour. At a time where significant problems stood with cost and scalability, problems that were most apparent in the US system.

“Students in the US are going to university and building up debt. There’s also a high percentage of those who don’t graduate at all- which represents a lose lose situation. The other big problem is scalability, millions of people want to learn; but simply don’t have access. And it’s these potential students who are incredibly important for the economy”

Such problems with the educational industry were exploited by a number of now extremely well known MOOC providers. The likes of Coursera, who last year had over 4 million students- Udacity and edX , all of who are testament to the sheer power that disruptive models can have on an industry.

Moreover, they showcased that exclusivity is becoming a thing of the past. Opening up doors that had been closed for a very long time.

The result? Disruptive education models have forced Universities to rethink- “Without bricks and mortar, educational brands are able very quickly to create a high quality product. Their USP is helping you graduate more quickly and at a better price,” says Porter.

Whilst some may be repulsed by the idea that traditional physical universities are being replaced by virtual institutions where dropouts run rife. Sarah Porter reminds us that MOOCs are still in their early stages and shouldn’t be discounted.

Just yet.

The important takeaway here, is that it has forced competition within a historically stagnant industry. Which most certainly isn’t a bad thing.

Disruptive innovation. Coming to an industry near you.