Uncle Phil and Governor Pawlenty

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Mar 5, 2009

There is a great encapsulation of the potential of online learning on TV and the Internet right now in the form of this advertisement for Kaplan University. In it, James Avery (known to many as Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) stands before students in a conventional college classroom and apologizes for how the system has failed them—and suggests a brighter way forward.

One governor who seems to understand the potential of this disruption is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. In his State of the State address, he called for a firm cap on higher education tuition and challenged Minnesota’s colleges and universities to deliver 25 percent of their courses online by 2015.

As we’ve pointed out many times, it is a disruptive innovation that will solve the problem of affordability in higher education. The Department of Justice, for example, did not lower computer prices by busting IBM’s monopoly and pitting mainframe against mainframe. Affordability came through disruption in the form of the personal computer. The same is true in higher education. Asking colleges to hold down costs is unlikely to transform anything; giving more grants to students won’t transform the situation either. Teaching and online universities or other such disruptions are what will transform the landscape and deliver affordability.

A question, however, is if the existing universities and colleges will be capable of doing this. Although they may be able to port their courses to an online environment, truly transforming their business model and making it less costly will likely mean they have to set up an autonomous division with different resources, processes, and priorities from the existing organization. The challenge contained in Pawlenty’s speech—and the ask to require Minnesota high school students to take at least one course online before they graduate—moves the needle forward at least.

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.