Brilliant Clay Shirky post on why industries succumb to disruptive innovation

By November 16, 2012Innovation

Clay Shirky is one of my favourite business writers and last week he wrote a post about the coming disruption of the education industry. He begins by describing how Napster was a watershed moment for the music industry, making the interesting point that although they won the battle against Napster they went on to lose the war, failing to regain control over even legal channels of music distribution. I love his explanation of why:

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail. Yet things did fail, in large part because, after Napster, the industry’s insistence that digital distribution be as expensive and inconvenient as a trip to the record store suddenly struck millions of people as a completely terrible idea.

and of how this sort of failing generalises to other industries:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

As Clay says, it’s been interesting watching this play out in music, books, newspapers and TV, and it’s now starting to happen in education. His assessment of the education industry’s likely response is good for a bit of Friday humour:

We [in education] have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.

I’m going to finish with a quote that illustrates the power of the disruptive forces sweeping through education:

Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus. As Thrun put it, “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.” Seeing this, he quit and founded Udacity, an educational institution designed to offer MOOCs.

That’s an amazing stat (or claim…). If you’re interested in the future of education, or in examples of weak arguments that establishment figures use to defend the status quo then Clay’s full post is well worth a read.

  • Gary Mulder

    Interestingly, a current monopolist licensor of higher education tried (and failed) to ban Coursera and the like:

  • Andrew Hall (sumdog)

    Although Clay cleverly highlights the parallels between the music and education industries, there is a key difference.

    The value of online entertainment services, including music sites, can summed up as ‘is the overall experience enjoyable?’ Something that we all can answer with confidence from a young age. With education, the value should ultimately be judged on whether you’ve learned something that’s useful. But that’s a particularly difficult question for any of us to answer, even more difficult if you need to answer for your young child.

    So maybe instead of one online industry, there will be two sub-industries: facilitating learning and independent testing of learning. The latter could ultimately replace the high-stake testing systems aggressively owned by governments and driven by the whims of overly confident education ministers. It would be great to see the market determine the aims of education as well as help improve the process of learning.

  • Steve Wart

    The value of an education unfortunately is not whether you’ve learned something useful, but rather the certificate they hand you at the end, regardless of what you have learned or accomplished. As long as employers continue to fawn over Ivy-league graduates, the market for education is free from any real disruption.

  • “As long as employers continue to fawn over Ivy-league graduates, the market for education is free from any real disruption.” – true, but employers are increasingly looking to side projects and other indicators of proficiency. I have hope ☺

  • I agree, and I think recruitment processes are evolving in that direction as employers put less faith in exams. I’m thinking of coding tests at interview, role plays and the like.

  • It never fails to amaze me how self interest makes people so blind to facts that would undermine their position, resulting in amazingly stupid attempts to preserve the status quo.