Gunnar Counselman, CEO of Fidelis Education, and I coauthored this piece.

“There are a few moments in my life I will never forget. Like the moment I proposed to my wife, Petra. … Today is one of those moments.”

So wrote Udacity founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun upon announcing a new $6,600 master’s in computer science degree in partnership with Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech’s dean of computing Zvi Galil expressed similar glee when he said in an interview, “You know there is a revolution going on, right?”

Hyperbole about disruptive innovation in higher education is rampant. Starting as a trickle of conversation a decade back and turning into a torrent today, innovation now dominates the ecosystem’s collective mindshare.

Any time something new emerges, we at the Christensen Institute are inevitably asked, “Is this disruptive?”

Sometimes the circumstances around the innovation are opaque, and we are forced to write nuanced opinions that caveat our answers with things like government funding, regulation, accreditation, and “we’ll see if they can establish an actual business model.”

But in this case, there is no need for qualification. The Rubicon has been crossed.

This effort meets every criterion for being disruptive. The online master’s:

  • Has a radically lower cost structure that enables a significantly lower price of $6,600 (for the entire degree!)
  • Is aimed directly at what we refer to as “nonconsumers,” people who can’t access or afford the traditional offerings in a market for any number of reasons and have different needs from traditional consumers
  • Serves these nonconsumers on both the student side and the employer side (the program has an exciting partnership with AT&T)
  • Is simpler, more flexible, and more convenient

Both of us are nonconsumers of computer science education who are strongly considering pursuing this degree despite the fact that neither of us has ever thought about pursuing a third degree before. We just hope we get accepted, but if we don’t, the program also offers an even less expensive non-credit bearing credential that we suspect will carry some weight.

Our rationale is that the price is low enough not to break the bank but high enough to make our classmates and us really commit. Georgia Tech has a stellar reputation in computer science, and we have both been impressed with the commitment Udacity has made to improve continually its offerings, learn from its mistakes, and create quality courses that optimize people’s learning experiences. We are actually both glad that there will be non-graduate student, non-professor instructors because we think that there is a lot of benefit in working with people who specialize in instruction, and we don’t want to waste top-notch researchers’ time with our neophyte questions. Though neither of us wants to work as computer scientists, the credential would be valuable to each of us for different reasons.

Four things that would improve the program are if: 1) there is a long weekend on campus to meet our fellow students and instructors; 2) the courses are as competency-based as possible; 3) the admissions process is not selective; and 4) students have to put some money down up front.

Although incumbents have a hard time disrupting themselves, if they can pull off an “IBM” and create an autonomous business model that operates along very different metrics from the core offering, then the brand and resources that existing market leaders bring can be a valuable advantage. The facts that we wouldn’t hesitate today to send our own children to Georgia Tech and that employers will likely value this program helps show how true that is here. If Georgia Tech can maintain the necessary autonomy for this program, it starts with an advantage that, despite their disruptive elements, online programs such as the University of Phoenix have never possessed.

Even though we think that this announcement has the potential to be the disruptive moment for higher education, to extend the Julius Ceasar analogy, it is too early to Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

On the contrary, when disruptive forces are at play, it is crucial for incumbents to think and act strategically. Although there is a clear first-mover advantage when it comes to disruptive innovation, plenty of would-be disruptive upstarts have fallen flat by making mistakes along the way. By being first, Georgia Tech isn’t guaranteed of success, and there is room for several market leaders.

But as often happens when an industry is being disrupted, people aren’t able to see the big picture yet. It still feels like the year 2000, with Napster threatening the music industry while executives respond with uncoordinated spasms of anger and denial rather than strategy.

Most faculty and administrations have been forced to pull their heads out of the sand as the MOOCs have splashed across the horizon. But most are still stuck in a morass of political infighting over process and approaches to consultation and collaboration. To the extent they have joined the MOOCs, most universities have done so just to do something, not necessarily the strategic thing. Faculty, in rare moments of candor, will admit that their personal economic worries inform their feelings about academic acceptability.

Universities shouldn’t worry about being first per se; instead worry about being different. Be focused on being best for a given industry, a particular geography, your community of alumni, your existing feeder high schools, your current students, or a particular type of student need. Be patient for growth, but impatient for profitability or viability.

And engage your community to ask what job you do that makes your University unique? For whom? And what makes that hard to replicate?

Be honest in answering. Every institution cannot be everything to everyone. These are the first questions of strategy making, and it’s time for everyone in higher education to get strategic.

Gunnar Counselman is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute and the CEO of Fidelis Education, an enterprise platform for personalized learning.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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