Disruptive technologies in higher education

  • Michael Flavin
Keywords: confrontingReality, problemSolving, VLEs, onlineLearning, informalLearning, disruptiveInnovation, disruptiveTechnology, activityTheory, expansiveLearning


This paper analyses the role of ‘‘disruptive’’ innovative technologies in higher education. In this country and elsewhere, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have invested significant sums in learning technologies, with Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) being more or less universal, but these technologies have not been universally adopted and used by students and staff. Instead, other technologies not owned or controlled by HEIs are widely used to support learning and teaching. According to Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation, these disruptive technologies are not designed explicitly to support learning and teaching in higher education, but have educational potential. This study uses Activity Theory and Expansive Learning to analyse data regarding the impact of disruptive technologies. The data were obtained through a questionnaire survey about awareness and use of technologies, and through observation and interviews, exploring participants’ actual practice. The survey answers tended to endorse Disruptive Innovation theory, with participants establishing meanings for technologies through their use of them, rather than in keeping with a designer’s intentions. Observation revealed that learners use a narrow range of technologies to support learning, but with a tendency to use resources other than those supplied by their HEIs. Interviews showed that participants use simple and convenient technologies to support their learning and teaching. This study identifies a contradiction between learning technologies made available by HEIs, and technologies used in practice. There is no evidence to suggest that a wide range of technologies is being used to support learning and teaching. Instead, a small range of technologies is being used for a wide range of tasks. Students and lecturers are not dependent on their HEIs to support learning and teaching. Instead, they self-select technologies, with use weighted towards established brands. The use of technologies outside HEIs has implications for the monitoring of learning and teaching, and for the role of HEIs, which are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge.

Keywords: confronting reality; problem solving; VLEs; online learning; informal learning; disruptive innovation; disruptive technology; activity theory; expansive learning

(Published: 30 August 2012)



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How to Cite
Flavin M. (2012). Disruptive technologies in higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 20. https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v20i0.19184
ALT-C 2012 Conference Proceedings - A confrontation with reality