Clayton Christensen vs. Michael Porter on MOOCs

College is expensive, and it’s not likely getting any less expensive, and perhaps the whole tipping point can be solved by MOOCs. Now the discussion seems to be shifting over to the MBA world — those degrees are expensive, but they can also yield strong financial results on the back-end for those that get them. Could that world become MOOC-oriented? And if so, what might it look like?

There are a couple of different models out there: Harvard, a respected business school, is offering nine-week sets of three courses (with case studies!) for about $1500 per (a typical MBA is about 48 credits, or maybe 15-20 classes, so you’d be able to do it — theoretically — for under $10,000, which is a good deal). UPenn’s Wharton School, also respected, is going through Coursera (a popular name in this space) and reaching millions already. 

The off-shoot of all this is that two of the most well-known professors at Harvard Business School — certainly some of the most popular authors —  are now fighting (in a well-meaning way) about Harvard’s direction in this space. Clayton Christensen, who essentially coined the term “disruptive innovation,” thinks Harvard isn’t doing enough and could become obsolete in years (more on that in a second). By contrast, Michael Porter thinks it’s folly to assume technology is a strategy, saying stuff like “Just because 200,000 people sign up doesn’t make it a good idea.” He thinks Harvard should play to its existing strengths, thus.

You might be tempted to scream “Nerd fight!” or “Well-compensated academics fight!” but this is an interesting issue. It’s less relevant to these two guys specifically because they’re coming at it from Harvard, which can pretty much do anything it wants in the business space, brand-wise. People will pay the $10K or the $120K or the Coursera or whatever else to have that on a resume somewhere. This is probably a more realistic discussion for a more regionalized business school, like a Clemson or equivalent, in terms of their future and how to reach students. You can also argue, as Quartz does here, that the focus of MOOCs has shifted from “upending the economics of higher education!” (which may not be truly possible) to “providing realistic career-based training.” In that sense, Porter might have one over on Christensen. This isn’t necessarily a space (right now, at least) where you’re looking for the next Google. Sustainable innovation, as opposed to disruptive innovation, might be the way to go.

That said, if we have another two-three decades of kids exiting undergrad with X-amount of debt and only finding average starting salaries of $45,327, then we’re going to need to do something disruptive in order to help re-establish the very notion of a “middle class.”

Oh, and also:

Ted Bauer