Christensen and Eyring (2011) The Innovative University

At times, The Innovative University reads more like an extended panegyric to Harvard than an analysis of the impact of Disruptive Technologies and Disruptive Innovation (1997, 2003) on higher education. However, Christensen and Eyring do reiterate some of the points made in Christensen’s earlier writings on disruption, or the lack of it, in learning and teaching: ‘Since the time that universities first gathered students into classrooms, the learning technologies… have remained largely the same. Even when computers were introduced into the classroom, they were used to enhance the existing instructional approaches, rather than to supplant them. Lectures, for example, were augmented with computer graphics, but the lecture itself persisted in its fundamental form’ (2011, p.18). New tools have arisen to facilitate and potentially enhance learning and teaching, but they have been located within an existing activity system (Engestrom, 1987), rather than prompting new learning and teaching paradigms.

However, and given the rapidly changing economics of higher education (most noticeably the substantial increase in fees), there is a possibility that expectations of higher education will alter, and that the provision of higher education will diversify. Christensen and Eyring point out a core fact of higher education in the US, ‘Since the late 1980s, college tuition and fees have risen 440 percent, four times faster than inflation’ (2011, p.202), a phenomenon which, in other circumstances, would look like a bubble.

In common with other commentators, therefore, Christensen and Eyring are interested in the purposes of higher education in a rapidly shifting economic context: ‘Now, with a college education becoming simultaneously more expensive and a precondition to earning a living wage, there is a temptation for students and policymakers to focus on making the fundamental product – a degree – more affordable; in the face of today’s wrenching economic and social pressures it is natural for not only marketers of higher education but also customers to become myopic’ (2011, p. 332). Hence, a utilitarian outlook on higher education is understandable, and defensible. However, they see higher education having other possibilities, and obligations: ‘Yet the job that students and policymakers need done is the bestowal of the insights and skills necessary not to just make a living but to make the most of life. A college degree creates its significant wage-earning advantage because it is designed with more than mere economic goals in mind’ (2011, p. 332).

Higher education has a job to do which extends beyond simple economics. Therefore, universities need to be responsive to wider social contexts. One significant aspect of changing contexts over the last twenty years has been the emergence and rapid embedding of the internet. Moreover, the internet is now a core aspect of students’ learning lives and may, furthermore, be diluting previous demarcations between learning, work and leisure, demarcations which have been in place since the industrialisation of western societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Therefore, universities need to find new ways of working with the technologies with which learners and teachers interact on a daily basis: ‘Universities have grown larger, more complex, and more expensive, but their basic character still reflects decisions made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ (2011, p. 379). According to Christensen and Eyring, this can’t continue.  


Christensen, C. M. (1997) The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Mass., Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M. and Raynor, M. E. (2003) The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth,CambridgeMA, Harvard University Press.

Christensen, C. M. and Eyring, H. J. (2011) The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Engeström, Y. (1987) Learning by expanding: an activity-theoretical approach to developmental research,Helsinki, Orienta-Konsultit Oy. (accessed 15 March 2012).

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