Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE: Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies

Academic journal article Research in Learning Technology

Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE: Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies

Article excerpt

Copyright: © 2015 S. Powell et al. Research in Learning Technology is the journal of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), a UK-based professional and scholarly society and membership organisation. ALT is registered charity number 1063519. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Received : 30 July 2013; Accepted : 16 June 2015; Published : 24 July 2015

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When planning for curriculum and business model change in universities, it is useful to be able to provide an analysis of proposed curriculum developments to distinguish those that are incremental and sustaining in nature from those which are disruptive innovations, as defined by Bower and Christensen (1995, p. 44). The preliminary aim of our analysis was to understand the kind of innovation, in terms of incremental through to disruptive, that the model of work-focussed learning exhibits in the context of Higher Education Institutions (HEI). In addition, based on these two case study illustrations and the studies that inform the disruptive innovation theory, our second aim was to suggest how this theory can be used to decide the appropriate governance models for successfully handling sustaining and disruptive educational innovation.

Sustaining and disruptive innovations

Sustaining innovations are those that improve existing, well-tested curriculum delivery models without changing the current ways an institution functions. Disruptive innovations are those that develop new business models to exploit the potential of emerging technologies to serve new types of students, or existing students that current provision does not serve well. Disruptive innovations present a challenge to an institution's existing processes, systems, working practices, and, perhaps most importantly, to its decision-making around appropriate management responses, specifically the allocation of resources.

Future significance of disruptive innovation in the HE context

The theory of disruptive innovation is explained, discussed and applied further in this article, but it is worth outlining why it is particularly relevant now to HEIs. Blackmore and Kandiko (2012) point out that the higher education system is becoming increasingly globalised with more competition nationally and internationally for students, although the impact at the level of a particular institution will be context specific. They also highlight the political desire to open up the HE market to competition through both national and global league table rankings. In the UK, competition has been increased by the current UK government's desire to create new forms of public and private universities (Willets 2011). In addition, the continuous development of technology, infrastructure and tools are opening up the potential for new business, learning and organisational models such as those presented by Massive Open Online Courses (Yuan and Powell 2013).

These factors outlined above are creating a new context for HEIs, in which disruptive innovations may arise, posing a threat to existing models and demanding an appropriate response.

A key strategic challenge for universities is to recognise different types of innovation and be able to determine which are sustaining and which are disruptive. Some innovations may appear to address niche market segments that are at present either not served or little served. They thus seem to be a limited threat to the current business model and safe to ignore. However, they may yet have the potential to grow into a significant disruptive threat in the future. …

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