Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring explain why higher education is in crisis and how it needs to change

Published: Saturday, May 14 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A Harvard business professor and BYU-Idaho administrator have come together to sound a warning call about the state of higher education.

Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, who both graduated from BYU, say the future doesn't look good for colleges and universities across the country: tuition prices are out of control and states are cutting back on funding, all at time in which a post-secondary degree is becoming more vital than ever.

They lay out what looks like a crisis in higher education in their new book coming out this summer — The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out.

The book explains how universities got to where they are today and how they need to change by raising quality, lowering cost and serving more students. They use Harvard and BYU-Idaho as examples throughout the book. Eyring described the book as telling the reader: "this is where higher education is going and this is how to solve it."

Part of their solution to the dilemmas many cash-strapped colleges are facing today: embrace online learning and technology in the classroom.

Christensen calls it the disruptive innovator. He says there have been disruptive technologies in almost every sector but health care and higher education, and without a disruptive innovator costs can spiral out of control.

Disruptive innovation, a term he coined in 1995, is an idea that improves a product or service in ways the market does not expect, mainly by offering it at a more affordable price and often to a different consumer, he explained.

For example, Toyota did this with their lines of cheaper, smaller, lest-luxurious cars like the Corolla and Camry.

Originally these cars were seen as inferior by companies like GM, but there was demand for such vehicles and over time, the cars improved in quality.

Online learning, which has had its own growing pains, is at this point. Adults who want to go to college but don't want the "campus experience" need the opportunity to take quality courses online, Eyring says. If more classes were offered online, students could decide to take a trip across the world and also take classes online while having this experience, Eyring explains.

The best professors could teach more students at a more individualized pace by having some or even all of their lectures online, Eyring said. Students could pause, fast forward or even re-watch parts of the lecture they did not understand.

"Students will no longer have to accept mediocre teachers," Christensen said.

But Eyring explains that it doesn't have to be an "all or nothing" model. Professors and institutions can have hybrid classes where some information is offered online and others in lecture-style. Christensen has used technology in his class of 90 students by having them use the internet to make comments on a discussion board — everyone can comment and see others comments much faster than if they were each to take turns speaking out loud.

Professors will also be able to specialize more — some can create new curriculum, others who enjoy teaching can implement it and the professors who just want to do research can focus on that.

"No competent, motivated teacher need fear," Eyring says. "There is an almost unlimited need. This technology allows us to serve the world. Non-consumers will become consumers."

There is great research about why the current model works, he said. But it is hard to convince people with just data — a good theory, though, can explain why and how something can and will work, Christensen said.

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