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A Harvard business professor, a provocative book, and lessons in learning

With nod to online learning, professor says it’s time to rethink old higher-education model

What’s a professor to do when he writes a book so provocative that even his coauthor seems to disagree with some of its points?

Here’s Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Innovative University,’’ on the future and finances of higher education in an era of destabilizing Web technologies: “I think it’s going to get really bad for traditional universities a lot sooner than most people think.’’

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Here’s his coauthor, Henry Eyring, advancement vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho: “We’re not saying the sky is falling.’’

Traditional universities are under attack on many fronts. State and federal support is in flux. Most schools have hiked tuition, a move that leaves critics questioning the worth of a degree.

There is competition from new online schools with substantially lower overhead costs than campus-bound institutions, and lower price tags. Established universities need to adapt, as a raft of books during the last two years has pointed out.

What makes “The Innovative University,’’ out in hardback last week, stand out is its application of Christensen’s singular business principles (briefly, eliminate the inessential and embrace new technology) to “rethink the entire traditional higher-education model.’’

Some of the ideas Christensen supports are so dramatic that Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote that administrators might consider them “toxic.’’

I think it’s going to get really bad for traditional universities a lot sooner than most people think

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor 
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Christensen spares no one, not even Harvard.

Even though he devotes 124 pages of the book to commending Harvard - the section is called “The Great American University’’ - he sees room for improvement on his home turf.

“The quality of teaching is really very marginal in large portions of the university,’’ he said, echoing a common criticism of research universities. “If you take classes online, you can have the best teachers in America.’’

Harvard offers some courses online, including more than 150 from its continuing-education program. It has also made improving teaching a priority in recent years; last winter, it hosted a series of seminars on the topic, led by the dean of arts and sciences. Those lectures, too, are available online.

But Christensen sees promise in more radical models.

He touts Western Governors University - “pioneering,’’ “path-breaking,’’ open to many at a low tuition of $5,780 - for its choice of majors. Not that there’s much choice: The school offers four.

According to Western Governors’ website, there are no full-time instructors. There is no curriculum, no grades, no campus. Western Governors’ website is, in fact, the university: It’s an entirely online school.

Online learning has changed dramatically in the last decade, gaining respectability and attracting the attention of everyone from Bill Gates to Governor Rick Perry of Texas for its potential to help low-income students.

Christensen writes glowingly about what online courses can offer: convenient and affordable formats, personalization, and a “growing body of skilled instructors who know how to make the most of the medium.’’ He proposes that brick-and-mortar universities outsource some of their introductory courses to for-profit online providers, a step some have taken.

But a recent study by Columbia University researchers suggests that for a group of students that needs flexibility and low prices, online instruction may not be quite the solution its supporters suggest. Community college students in the study were more prone to dropping out of online courses than face-to-face classes.

“Some of them don’t even have high-speed Internet at home, so it’s going to be agonizing for them to try to do things online,’’ said Shanna Jaggers, a coauthor of the study. It could be argued that only technologically adroit students should pursue online learning, she said, but “that goes against the notion of why we should have online courses in the first place, which is to increase access.’’

Eyring, Christensen’s coauthor, stressed that campuses are still important. “If tuition gets too expensive, people will go to the purely online alternatives,’’ he said. “But I also think there’s an argument that says, ‘Hey, the traditional university is more than a video store.’ ’’

Ken Udas, chief executive of UMassOnline - one of the first state system online hybrids, with 116 degrees and 1,500 courses - said online programming wouldn’t be effective “if it looks an awful lot like traditional programming’’ without, for instance, ways of personalizing courses for students in different locations.

The need to personalize and differentiate is another big theme of “The Innovative University,’’ which draws on ideas first laid out in Christensen’s bestseller, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.’’

Don’t try to emulate Harvard, Christensen warns. Use the Web to keep costs down. Stop adding star faculty and expensive research facilities.

But many schools are adding both. The University of Massachusetts Boston, for instance, built a Venture Development Center for tech start-ups and research two years ago and broke ground on a $152 million science complex in June. And rather than stripping down to, say, four majors, it is nearly doubling its doctoral programs, to about 20.

William Brah, director of the development center, said the university was doing just what Christensen advocates: developing niches. As for the doctoral programs, Brah said, “Our students do expect a high-quality education.’’

He added, with a smile, “I’d be glad to suggest things that Harvard should do differently.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mary_carmichael.
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