When massive open online courses, or MOOCs, took the world by storm in 2012, all too often the description of them was accompanied by an adjective: disruptive. The implication? They were clearly disruptive innovations destined to transform learning.

Although the three companies most associated with the term MOOC—Coursera, edX, and Udacity—may end up being disruptive and help transform learning worldwide, early on it was clear that, properly and narrowly defined, in and of themselves MOOCs were unlikely to be Disruptive Innovations relative to traditional colleges and universities. Although they bore many markers of disruption, when defined narrowly, they lacked a business model innovation that would allow their disruptive value proposition to be sustainable and move up-market over time. And given their original reliance on traditional college and university faculty, it was doubtful that they could harness the power of online learning to move up-market along the dimension that would matter most to their success: teaching and learning.

Instead, at the Christensen Institute, our view has long been that the online, competency-based colleges and universities emerging over the past few years have held far more disruptive potential relative to many traditional colleges and universities.

In my colleague Michelle R. Weise’s just released free mini-book, Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution, she, along with Clayton Christensen, make the case for why—as well as explain why this disruption could be great for improving student learning, helping all students accomplish real jobs in their lives, and extending access to higher-quality learning experiences to those who would otherwise not have them.

As they argue, online, competency-based schools represent the right learning model—focused on actual mastery of knowledge, skills, and dispositions—with the right technology of online learning, targeted at the right customers—nonconsumers who are over-served by the value proposition that traditional colleges and universities offer and searching for a new value proposition from college aligned around workforce needs—paired with the right business model that is low cost, low-priced, and sustainable.

Online, competency-based colleges and universities pass the tests of disruptive innovation relative to traditional colleges and universities.

The traditional resources, processes, priorities, and revenue formula underlying most colleges and universities are fundamentally at odds with the new ones that online, competency-based providers bring. As such, they create embedded inefficiencies—appropriate for the traditional functions of a university, but not other functions—that render traditional colleges and universities unable to respond naturally and in the absence of good leadership to these emerging institutions and their new value propositions around learning.

Weise and Christensen enumerate these embedded inefficiencies: time is treated as fixed, whereas in competency-based models, learning is fixed; professors are the fount of knowledge, whereas in competency-based models the locus of teaching shifts dramatically; traditional academia has an interdependent structure, whereas in competency-based models there is a shift to modularization; and knowledge is separated from training, whereas in competency-based models, learning becomes a lifelong pursuit tied directly to one’s workforce goals.

The study profiles some of these emerging online, competency-based programs: Western Governors University, UniversityNow’s Patten University; Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning; the University of Wisconsin’s UW Flex, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, Capella University’s FlexPath, and Brandman University’s Bachelor of Business Administration.

Many of these emerging entities have disruptive potential, but the study importantly notes that their emergence does not in any way necessitate the death of the liberal arts, as many have worried. Indeed, Northern Arizona’s program offers a competency-based degree in the liberal arts.

Certainly some will still scoff at their disruptive potential and refer to these entities as merely vocational programs and talk about how they are making higher education less equitable (something the paper refutes directly—and points out that the opposite is true). But those who do are missing the point. In how they have gone under the radar and filled a real job to be done with a technology enabler poised to get better and better, competency-based institutions are positioned far more disruptively than MOOCs, narrowly defined, ever were.

Hoping regulation or accreditation staves off the disruption is unlikely to be a good bet either. Ironically perhaps, in its so-called pivot away from being just a MOOC provider offering traditional courses from traditional universities online to creating courses with and for companies like AT&T and Google, Udacity has embraced many of the elements of online, competency-based models that are so powerful with no need for changes in policy or accreditation. Predictably perhaps, many in traditional academia scoffed as this happened and said it proved that traditional colleges and universities could not be disrupted. But a read through this mini-book suggests that those folks might want to rethink those assumptions, as Udacity is positioned far more disruptively than ever before. As this study suggests, these moves offer hints of a very exciting shift in higher education that could lead to lower costs, improved quality, and more equity for all.

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  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.