Do disruptive innovations always start as not as good? Posted on April 29th, 2010 by Michael B. Horn

I had an interesting discussion with Jose Ferreira, the founder of Knewton, a couple weeks ago after a panel that I moderated and on which Jose participated concluded at the Arizona State Education Innovation Network conference. I thought it worth writing about, and Jose was kind enough to let me share the details.

Jose’s point to me after the panel was that it’s not always the case that a disruptive innovation is not as good as the leading products or services along historical dimensions, and in education, because the bar has been so low for so long, it could be that it’s rarely the case (and I should adjust my language accordingly when I describe a disruptive innovation).

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It’s a good point, and one with which I don’t entirely disagree. Occasionally we do see an innovation come along that is both demonstrably lower in cost and higher in quality according to traditional metrics, such that the leading organizations have trouble responding and it transforms a sector. It’s just that it’s very rare because those are both generally very high hurdles. Clayton Christensen and Jason Hwang write about this in The Innovator’s Prescription.

The reasons for emphasizing that it’s generally the case that a disruptive innovation is not as good along historical measures of performance are (1) this is generally how it happens; (2) that people often get confused and believe that breakthrough improvements are disruptive, when in fact they are sustaining innovations; and (3) to help people see that just because something doesn’t look good today, they might think twice before dismissing it out of hand, as it could look very different in the future, and they probably want to avoid being like the leaders in the computing industry who didn’t understand the potential of the personal computer.

Indeed, in education, many of the recent disruptive innovations in online learning have been pooh-poohed. Established universities did not lead the transition to online learning, as did the University of Phoenix and others, in part because of concerns over “quality.” Today many continue to dismiss these innovations in that market. Similar things have occurred in the K-12 education space.

Although studies consistently show that, on average, online learning is better than traditional face-to-face classrooms, learning has not historically been the measure of performance that society cared about (perhaps surprisingly), as we discuss in Disrupting Class, and therefore along historical measures (however meaningless those might be), online learning hasn’t necessarily fared particularly well initially, as it hasn’t looked and felt like the old system (which is a good thing in my opinion).

Jose’s follow up point to me on this, however, was also a good one. In his specific initial market of test preparation, where outcomes have always been valued, he said that not only is his service a lot less expensive than a solution from market leaders Kaplan and Princeton Review, it’s also a lot better—and Knewton can guarantee significant improvements as a result. I don’t know enough about the different products or services out there in test preparation to make a judgment here, and I’d be happy to see someone from Kaplan or Princeton Review respond, but the general point here about the low performance bar in education products doesn’t necessarily ring false to me, and I think Jose makes a good point that I should be more careful to say “generally” not as good as and not imply “always.”

Filed under: Education Blog

5 Responses to “Do disruptive innovations always start as not as good?”
Why Can’t Disruptive Technologies be Better than Incumbents? by Knewton, on April 29th, 2010 at 9:51 pm Said:
[…] Read the blog post. […]

Richard Rasmus, on April 30th, 2010 at 10:29 am Said:
Wow, what Knewton has done is very impressive. Michael, you and I talked about the unrealized promise of recommendation engines and adaptive learning systems some time ago and since then I’ve had a hard time finding much that has been applied effectively at the K-12 level. Is there anything you have come across lately that’s noteworthy? The NYC School of One seems ambitious andexciting, but labor-intensive, too. Any other examples you would highlight?

Why Can’t Disruptive Technologies be Better than Incumbents? | B-School Admissions Formula, on April 30th, 2010 at 6:03 pm Said:
[…] Read the blog post. […]

Scott Edmiston, on May 15th, 2010 at 2:31 pm Said:
If you ask someone—what school did you graduate? The answer immediately conjures up an image of that person’s educational background. The presumption is that a degree from a well-established leader in university training is giving the best outcome for the student. This perceived quality is generally more expensive than at lackluster universities due to salaries and the physical place where instruction happens. In the old world of education, delivery of information required a physical location of dissemination, which limited access to quality instruction. In today’s world, you need only turn on your computer, at any time of the day, and have instant access to knowledge. The Internet is disrupting education by changing the “place” of its delivery allowing more people to participate while doing it at a fraction of the cost. In addition technology is allowing differentiated instruction thereby guiding people to concepts that are not well understood. What follows for people and/or companies that figure it out, is that they can employ superior educators and deliver a better student outcome at a fraction of the cost. The expense of maintaining a “place” to deliver information to a limited “customer” base is no longer an issue, forever changing the economics of education. One possible outcome would be change the way we compensate teachers. What if we paid Professors based on the number of attendee’s rather than sessions taught? The marketplace would determine quality of education and the best would rise to the top—i.e. be paid—while the worst would fade. In my opinion, we have not reached a tipping point as of yet, but it is my belief we are getting there rapidly. I look at my 13 and 11 year old and see how much “screen” time they have during the day. They are comfortable getting information through a different medium. As they grow up, old world institutions that do not evolve, will go the way of the dinosaur.

TechCrunch on Nixty, Developing Countries as Big Opportunity | Clayton Christensen, on July 23rd, 2010 at 11:11 am Said:
[…] classic disruption, and a clarifying way to think about the blog I wrote about Knewton and were disruptions generally not as good as the existing paradigm. In this case, they don’t replicate what we think education “should […]

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