We hear more and more talk about how the traditional model of business schools will be annihilated by the disruptive innovation of on-line education, so-called MOOCs (massive open on-line courses). An increasing number of voices can be heard to proclaim that business schools with their lectures and study groups are doomed, antiquated, overpriced, and that people who doubt that are just in denial and one day will wake up finding themselves obsolete and plain wrong.
And, arguably, case studies on the effects of disruptive innovation conducted in industries ranging from airlines and newspapers to photography and steel mills, have shown that often the established players in the market are initially in denial, slow to react, suffering from hubris and, eventually, face crisis and extinction.
Yet, when it comes to on-line education, and its potentially disruptive influence on higher education, including business schools, I doubt that on-line education will replace face-to-face lectures and study groups.
The arguments that people use to proclaim that traditional business schools will be replaced by on-line education include the notions that it is much cheaper, can be more easily accessed by a much wider audience, and customers (students) can access the materials wherever and whenever they want.
And this just reminds me of the printing press.
Oral lectures have been around since the times of Socrates and Plato. I am sure when the printing press was invented and became more widespread and accessible, an increasing number of voices could be heard to proclaim that such lectures and schools were going to be replaced by books. That is because books are much cheaper, can be more easily accessed by a much wider audience, and students can access them wherever and whenever they want. But they did not replace face-to-face lectures and study groups.
And that is because books and on-line educational resources offer something very different than the traditional lectures and school community. They are complements rather than substitutes. Of course the arrival of the printing press quite substantially changed schools and education; business schools without books would be very different than they are today. Hence, it would be naïve to think that on-line resources are not going to alter traditional business school education; they will and they should. Business schools better think hard how they are going to integrate on-line education into their courses and curricula.
But this means that it offers opportunities rather than a threat. And research on the effects of disruptive innovation – for example in newspapers – has also shown that established players who treat the arrival of a new technology as an opportunity, rather than as direct substitute, are the ones that are most likely to survive and prosper.
Freek Vermeulen is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. In 2012, BestOnlineUniversities elected him number 1 in their global list of “top 100 web-savvy professors”. You can find him on-line at www.freekvermeulen.com and at @Freek_Vermeulen. He regularly blogs for Forbes, the Harvard Business Review and The Ghoshal Blog.