The Innovator’s Dilemma In Education

AKA “Online things aren’t as good.”

Mattan Griffel
Aug 1, 2014 · 2 min read

It goes something like this:

Clothing — You have to try on clothing before you buy it. You want to feel the quality. You want to talk to an actual salesperson. People will never buy clothing online.

Books — You have to hold a book in your hand to flip through it. You want to make notes on the pages. You want to go to a bookstore. People will never read digital books.

Education — You have to be in a classroom to pay attention. You want to be around other students. You want to ask questions to an actual teacher. People will never learn online.

I’ve been reading The Innovator’s Dilemma and I’m struck by a point Clayton Christensen makes quite often:

Disruptive innovation is hard to anticipate because it addresses the values of a different market that never existed before.

In fact, disruptive products are usually quite bad by the standards with which we measure what came before it.

Here’s how this relates to education:

Education, for a long time, was only accessible to a small, well-off percentage of the world’s population.

This market valued certain things. It wanted a diploma. It wanted an actual classroom. It wanted having a physical teacher present in the classroom. It wanted education to be a social experience. And the market was able to get these things because it had a lot of money to pay.

But now there’s a new market for education that values different things. People all over the world want or need to learn new skills. They want higher-paying jobs. They want to get better at the jobs they currently have. They don’t have as much money so they care about cost.

They don’t need education to be a social experience. They don’t need an actual classroom. In fact, for many people learning would be more convenient if it wasn’t in-person — that way they could learn at night or around their own working schedules.

Colleges are ignoring this market because it’s not able to pay as much as the market they’re used to serving. And as more and more of their income comes from student tuition, they’ll become more and more resistant to change.

My point is this:

Yes, online learning isn’t as good as offline learning by many of the standards we care about when it comes to education today. But tomorrow’s students are a whole different group of people with a whole different set of standards.

They’re people who haven’t had access to good teachers before. They don’t really care about the classroom experience. They may not even care about college diplomas. They’re the real market. And there are a lot of them.

    Mattan Griffel

    Written by

    Award-Winning Faculty at Columbia Business School. I write about startups, technology, and philosophy.

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