Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen tells college chiefs their institutions may not be around in 20 years

Published: Tuesday, March 8 2011 11:58 a.m. MST

On Monday, a Harvard Business School professor boldly told hundreds of college chiefs at their annual meeting of the American Council on Education that their institutions may not be around in 20 years.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Clayton M. Christensen predicted that distance education (or online learning) may replace some institutions in a couple of decades.

"There is good reason for many of us to think that we might be okay in 20 years. But I think we might be wrong," he was quoted as saying. The article also states that he took many of his comments from a paper he co-wrote with Henry Eyring of Brigham Young University-Idaho called "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education."

Last month, Christensen came out with a report explaining this idea. In the report called "Disrupting College," Christensen along with three other co-authors explain that America is in crisis. In the next nine years, 63 percent of new jobs in America will require a post-secondary degree or higher with 55 percent needing an associate's degree or higher, yet the current percentage of adults with an associate's degree or higher is just 39 percent, according to HigherEdUtah 2020.

At the same time the nation is looking to higher education to help facilitate this needed growth, institutions across the nation are facing a crisis of their own. Christensen's report explains that graduation rates from institutions have stagnated, higher ed budgets are being slashed and most universities are striving for a model that does not seem to be student-centric.

And Christensen says he believes online learning may be an enabler for change and innovation.

"Roughly 10 percent of students in 2003 took at least one online course," the report states. "That fraction grew to 25 percent in 2008, was nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009, and we project it will be 50 percent in 2014."

It goes on to say that "Online learning can enable learning to happen in a variety of contexts, locations, and times; it allows for a transformation of curriculum and learning. … Online learning courses can easily embed actionable assessments and allow students to accelerate past concepts and skills they understand and have mastered and instead focus their time where they most need help at the level most appropriate for them."

(Check out Christensen's column he wrote for the Deseret News about online learning in the younger grades.)

He also says higher institutions need to adopt business model innovations.

The study gives a list of recommendations to policy makers in regards to higher education:

Eliminate barriers that block disruptive innovations and partner with the innovators to provide better educational opportunities.

Remove barriers that judge institutions based on their inputs such as seat time, credit hours, and student-faculty ratios.

Don't focus on degree attainment as the sole measure of success.

Fund higher education with the aim of increasing quality and decreasing cost.

And the report ends on a high note.

"American higher education is facing complex challenges, but there is significant reason for hope," the report states. "Understanding the causal forces at play that have led us to where we are now and how these same forces will continue to interact and play out is critical to fashioning a dialogue that can shape the road ahead. Policymakers and heads of universities can use this understanding to come together to harness these forces and put in place the conditions to foster innovations that drive quality for students—and allow both the students and the country to move toward a much brighter future."

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