Applying the theory of disruptive innovations to the field of language teaching


According to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation (Christensen, C. & Eyring, H. J. (2011), as companies grow big, they tend to focus on the high-end market developing more sophisticated, expensive products. This leaves the lower-end market open for other competitors. A disruptive technology, then, is one that allows less established companies to provide a similar product to the lower-end consumers. According to this view, the product offered may initially be considered simple and inferior by traditional metrics. However, by capturing the lower-end market, the disruptive competitors are able to continually improve their products. This improvement in the disruptive innovation further drives the change in the metrics used to evaluate the product, which ultimately leads to the formerly high-end products becoming obsolete, as in the case of personal computers replacing mainframe computers, cellular phones replacing fixed phone lines, and mini mills replacing integrated mills.

Applying the same logic to education, Christensen and Eyring (2011) contend that online education is the disruptive technology that allows institutes to offer a more affordable product to learners. Though online institutes or courses are often deemed inferior in quality and less rigorous, as the technology develops, it can provide learners better access, flexibility, and personalization. Though universities are traditionally evaluated based on metrics such as their research strength or the number of graduate programs offered, the advantages that online education offers, such as lower tuition fees, convenience, mobility, and better teaching quality may be more appealing to prospective undergraduate students. Christensen and Eyring (2011), thus, conclude that in order to avoid demise, traditional universities will need to “change their DNA” and respond to this disruption.

The following will apply Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to examine how online, open education poses as a threat to established EAP (English for Academic Purposes) institutes whose key strengths lie in delivering face-to-face instruction to the high-end market. To respond to the challenge, it will be argued that the EAP institutes need to develop an online teaching capacity aligned with the institutes’ strategic goals. In so doing, these institutes can stimulate innovations in teaching and learning, provide greater access and personalization, and build an ecology that helps develop a learning organization that is more adaptive to change.

Are traditional EAP institutes at risk?

The notion of disruptive innovation can be applied to explain the EAP market in Canada. Currently, in Canada, more established EAP institutes focus on developing more expensive programs for its most prized customers. In 2005, the University of Toronto established the Green Path program, offering a 3-month intensive academic English program with room and board and a conditional acceptance to the university with a price tag of $11,900 Cdn (University of Toronto). The program continues to grow with the largest enrollment of 225 students in the summer of 2013 (Campell, 2013). Likewise, in 2008, York University English Language Institute created the Destination York program to deliver a similar type of program for 2 months. This program has also witnessed substantial growth over the years. As of 2014, the program costs $11,600 Cdn (York University). In 2013, Vantage College at the University of British Columbia was also established to develop a full-year English program to international students with a $30,000 Cdn price tag for the program alone (UBC Vantage College). These institutes pride themselves on their high quality of teaching, immersive learning environment, and a direct, fast route to the university though these are only available to those who can afford the price. Although these institutes currently also offer more affordable programs, with the growth of these prestigious programs, it would seem only rational for the institutes to divert more resources to them.

In contrast, online universities, like Athabasca University, offer a 3-month EAP course for about $1,400 Cdn, half the cost of the average, offline EAP programs offered in traditional universities, and one-eighth the cost of the “high-end” courses discussed above. Although this online EAP course does not offer a fast, direct route to university (i.e., neither is enrolling in the course accompanied with conditional acceptance to the university nor does it fulfill the language requirement of the university), such a condition is not unattainable in the future. According to the logic of disruptive innovation, as the online institute perfects its curriculum, assessment, and delivery system to capture more of the market, the program may eventually become recognized by that and other partner universities.  In other words, the disruptive force of online education may allow less-established institutes to deliver an equally attractive product at a lower cost.

Furthermore, online education may lead to a change in learners’ values. Instead of seeking an immersive, face-to-face learning experience, learners may prefer access, affordability, convenience, and personalization, which are key advantages of online learning. Due to their focus on delivering face-to-face instruction to the high-end market, the EAP institutes in well-funded universities are more vulnerable to the disruption of online, open education, compared to private schools and smaller colleges, which have invested in developing an online capacity.

A private school, Culture Works, whose partner schools include the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), King’s University College, Brescia University College, Western University, Durham University, and Carleton University, currently offers an academic program for $10,306 that lasts for 4 months. Although the price is comparable to more traditional institutes, Culture Works has adopted a blended model in the course delivery, creating a competitive strength. Similarly, the partner university, UOIT, is a leader in technology-enhanced teaching. Likewise, many private colleges offer more options for course delivery. Sheridan College, offers reading, writing, listening, and speaking labs while Algonquin College offers different options, including classroom/lab, online, or hybrid courses. Because of their online capacity, they may be more capable of delivering high quality education at a low cost and harnessing the advantages offered by the increasing availability of free and open resources – which is also a form of disruptive innovation that will be discussed later in this paper.

In order to remain competitive, traditional EAP institutes whose key strengths lie in delivering face-to-face instruction and which increasingly focus on high-end markets will have to respond to the challenge of online education through the development of online, open technology. The following will explore how EAP institutes can harness the advantages of online innovations. In particular, by adopting open educational resources (OER), the institutes can enhance educational material quality, provide more personalization, and encourage sharing and collaboration. By incorporating the design elements from massive open online courses (MOOCs), the institutes can enhance EAP curriculum and support professional development.

Harnessing the advantages of the disruptive innovations

Open educational resources (OER) as a disruptive innovation

In terms of educational materials for EAP learners, one major disruptive force is the open textbook movement. Currently, Saylor’s Foundation and Rice University’s Connexions offer open licensed textbooks for different university disciplines, contributing to the creative commons. As the amount of content in the creative commons increases, the value of copyrighted textbooks decreases. This means that adopting open textbooks can provide institutes a price advantage.

Another important benefit of open textbooks is the value added to the textbook created through continuous development. First, open textbooks allow instructors the option of compiling portions of different textbooks given that it is often difficult to find a single textbook that meets learners’ needs (Hilton & Wiley, 2012). Instructors can further enhance written text with multimedia content. Both Saylor’s and Connexion’s textbooks provide a good model for EAP institutes to develop course kits using open content. In the article, the Model, Shoop (2012) outlined the process of developing open courses and textbooks by the Saylor Foundation. First, the course blueprints and syllabi were created. Then, the content experts were trained to locate open content, including not only written text but also podcasts or videos, and compile it based on the course structure. When open materials were not available, the Foundation commissioned the development of content.

Though currently it is not uncommon for EAP instructors to select online content for learners, open licensed textbooks further enable individual instructors to revise the content and alleviate instructors’ concerns about copyrights. Tomlinson (2012) points out that existing language textbooks are often not sufficiently localized or subject-specific. These textbooks sometimes neglect the contexts of the learners, are “superficial and reductionist in its coverage of language points” (p.158), and disempower and alienate teachers and learners (as cited in Tomlinson, 2012). Yet, acknowledging the utility of textbooks, Tomlinson (2012) believes that the textbooks should be designed to leave room for localization, personalization and choice. This points to the need of open resources that give teachers both legal and technological permission to customize materials.

For instance, open license textbooks can be adapted to meet the learners at different language proficiency levels, which means that the learners can be exposed to authentic materials rather than material written specifically for language learners. Also, with the increased availability of open source materials, EAP learners with different university majors can be given the choice to select their learning materials and work at their own pace to meet the program outcomes. Due to personalization and choice, learners can be better prepared for university study.

Flat World Knowledge, for instance, is an open textbook that makes it both legally and technologically feasible for instructors to revise and remix content. Although research on the reuse of the open-licensed Flat World Knowledge textbooks (Hilton and Wiley, 2012) reported a low level of revision and remix among faculty, studies on the reuse of open educational resources (OER) by language instructors (Beaven, 2013; Pulker, 2013) suggest that it is common for language instructors to appropriate the resources to meet their needs. However, the adapted content is not often republished (Pulker, 2013). As Hilton and Wiley (2012) also pointed out, more research on “dark reuse” or invisible sharing may be needed. The findings point to the importance of having a formalized system of open resources, which can support resource sharing and knowledge management.

According to a research on the benefits of the open repository for language resources at the Open University (Comas-Quinn, et al., 2011), having a more formalized, transparent system can help instructors develop a greater awareness about OER and acquire ITC skills, provide a platform for teachers to share ideas and contribute knowledge to the OU community as well as the wider English teaching community. This can further stimulate innovations in teaching.

All in all, adopting OER can yield numerous benefits, including lowering the costs, enhancing material quality, promoting personalization, and supporting knowledge and resource sharing. As described in the disruptive innovation framework, OER is a disruptive technology as it provides access to quality educational content at a lower cost. As open technology improves, it can further drive other innovations, which ultimately lead to the change in values. For instance, learners may value customized content and their ability to edit the content over having ready-made textbooks and, thus, rendering copyrighted paper textbooks obsolete.


MOOCs as a disruptive innovation

Adopting a MOOC-like learning environment can enhance EAP curriculum through the cultivation of digital literacies. According to Hockly (2012), given that language has become increasingly inseparable from digital contexts in which it is used, teaching digital literacies should be part of today’s language curriculum. Belshaw (2011) analyzes different dimensions of digital literacy, including the ability to comprehend information presented in a variety of digital environments, to create and remix content, to communicate appropriately in digital contexts, and to be able to evaluate resources. This applies to language learners preparing for university in which the content is no longer presented only in textbooks, but is often delivered on learning management systems and is in multimedia formats. Information is also often shared by peers through less formal channels, such as discussion forums and social networking platforms. This requires online communication, website evaluation, and internet research skills. To cultivate these skills, the design principles of MOOCs, especially the ecology of the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs), are informative.

cMOOCs feature a distributed, networked learning environment. At the outset of the course, the facilitators provide an infrastructure to deliver content, the course schedule for synchronous activities, and means to communicate with the participants (Siemens, 2012). cMOOCs are different from xMOOCs. The latter are such as open courses provided by Coursera or Edex, which tend to be modeled on traditional university courses that feature a more centralized content delivery approach and “the sage on stage” approach. On the other hand, in cMOOCs, the content is shared on distributed platforms. cMOOC participants, novices and experts alike, are encouraged to employ different communication technologies to connect, share and remix content.

The design of cMOOCs has two main advantages. First, although novice learners tend to feel overwhelmed initially due to the amount of information delivered on multiple platforms, learning this way can help learners to develop the capacity to evaluate content and filter out information irrelevant to their learning needs. This ecology helps cultivate critical thinking and information and ICT literacy (Guardia, Maina, & Sangra, 2013). Second, cMOOCs create an ecology for the development of new literacies, including the ability to connect, communicate, create and share knowledge in an distributed networked environment. This environment also helps to develop learners’ agency, self-directed learning capacity, and collaboration skills (Steward, 2013).

Although for many EAP programs, in which learners need to achieve a clear set of language proficiency outcomes in a short period of time, cMOOCs may not be the most effective means, creating a MOOC-like learning environment can narrow the linguistic/digital divide between students who are familiar with the web in the target language and those who are not. In her study of the digital divide between high school students who have university-educated parents and those who do not, Robinson (2013), reported that the latter group lacks the background information that the former has acquired through informal exchanges with their parents as well as people in their parents’ social networks. When both groups are given an equal amount of time to search for information about preparing for a university application, the first generation university applicants tend to find fewer resources than students with university-educated parents. The first generation university applicants are also less likely to see the internet as a valuable resource. This suggests that to narrow the digital divide requires not only providing access to a tool or teaching how to use the tool. Rather, it involves creating an authentic environment for the learners to develop these abilities effectively.

The same may be applied to language learners. Even though the learners may be computer literate and tech-savvy in their first language, they are less likely to be familiar with the web in the target language. From my observations as an EAP instructor, language learners are not often able to identify the platforms, i.e., personal blogs, Wikipedia, course management systems, news sites, government or other authorities’ websites, and social networks, on which the information is presented; hence, the importance of critical thinking and web evaluation skills. Furthermore, students who are social network users in their own language may feel less confident participating in the web using a second language. Therefore, immersion in a social learning environment, such as Diigo or Facebook groups or Twitter is beneficial for the development of online communication skills. To conclude, by incorporating the design elements of cMOOCs, an EAP curriculum can be improved by cultivating digital literacies and networked learning abilities among learners.

In addition to benefiting the learners, the ecology of cMOOCs can also support professional development among instructors and administrators. According to Cormier (2011) because the formal education system at present fails to promote continuous learning, many employees lack the skills to adapt to the changing world; thus, organizations have to rely on expensive consultants or costly employee training in order to remain competitive. For instance, education institutes have to combat change barriers such as a lack of awareness, knowledge, and training among both the teaching staff and the administrators. However, unlike the formal education system, in cMOOCs, because learners are encouraged to form their own personalized learning network using communication technologies, the networked environment promotes continuous learning beyond the duration of the course. For example, a MOOC participant may continue to follow the Tweeter feed of an expert in the field after the course ends. She then feeds the information she gains to her learning networks, including that of the organization she works at. This supports professional development by helping networked participants continue to be exposed to new ideas and innovations and, thus, helping to develop an organization more conducive to change.


The above have illustrated that established EAP institutes are vulnerable to the disruption of online technology. While developing online capability can help cope with this challenge, Christensen and Eyring (2011) cautioned against emulation. Rather, the EAP institutes need to evaluate whether the online initiatives, such as open content and open teaching, align with the university’s strategic goals.

In considering how post-secondary institutes can respond to the challenges of MOOCs, Marshall (2013) applies Porter’s Five Forces. Although to date, EAP institutes have yet to participate in Coursera-style MOOCs in North America, the proposed framework can guide EAP institutes as they consider how to meet the challenges posted by open, online education.

Applying Porter’s framework, the first question that EAP programs in established universities may consider is whether online EAP programs can replace face-to-face EAP programs. Currently, studying online does not provide learners an immersive language environment. Also, face-to-face communication provides more contextual cues than online communication tools can deliver. For example, body language, eye contact, and hand gestures are often lost in video conferencing. However, the nature of the disruptive technology is such that it can be improved continuously to replace existing technology. The development of mobile technology, social networks, and virtual worlds has resulted in online learning becoming more immersive. Besides, there are many learning outcomes in an EAP curriculum that can delivered more effectively online. For instance, the above has discussed that cMOOC provides an environment for cultivating digital literacies. Likewise, lecture listening and note-taking skills might be more effectively delivered online. In addition, traditional EAP institutes need to prepare for the time when more universities adapt open online learning as this would mean that EAP programs would no longer be simply preparing learners for offline learning but also online learning.

Second, traditional EAP institutes should consider whether the new entrants can compete with the established EAP programs. Even though the latter offer quality service as well as a more direct route to admission in established universities, as pointed out earlier in this paper, as less established EAP programs continue to capture more of the low-end market, they can continue to grow and may eventually become recognized by different universities.

The third force to consider is the attitudes of the stakeholders, in particular the students and their parents. In thinking about attitudes, it is also important to see that the theory of disruptive innovations prescribes that a change in values is possible. The learners may choose access, lower cost, personalization, technology-enhanced learning experience, or multi-access models over face-to-face learning. In terms of access, Irvine, Code, and Richards (2013) suggest that “improved access to learning experience” is one reason behind the popularity of MOOCs in North America. Thus, giving learners the choice may be the key to increase enrollment in university courses. The researchers urge universities to reevaluate the benefits of a multi-access framework, which provides learners with the choice to determine their preferred modes to access education, such as face-to-face, synchronous online, asynchronous online, and open learning and MOOCs. Likewise, for EAP institutes in Canada and the US, international students often face access barriers, due to visa issues or political reasons. Thus, language institutes should consider whether developing the capacity to offer different access modes would contribute to their competitive strengths.

Forth, the preferences of the EAP instructors and staff members who supply the services should also be considered. Without the cooperation of the teaching staff, no technological adoption will be possible. This means that administrators, staff and instructors will need to engage in dialogues to determine the strategic plan for the organization. For instance, Lombardi’s article (2013) described the process of administrators, staff, and faculty deciding whether to partner with Coursera, as they consider whether or not the partnership aligns with the university strategic goals and whether it can stimulate innovation in teaching and learning.

Finally, if established EAP programs adopt more open teaching models, how it will affect their competitiveness and that of the less-established institutes. Currently, offering an open EAP course may reduce the competitiveness of the institute more than offering an open university course due to the presence of standardized English tests in place, such as TOEFL, IELTS, and the Michigan Test. Many universities recognize the results of these tests, whereas the accreditation model for open university courses is not as developed. In addition, while completing the program in an established EAP institute gives access to admission only to the host university, passing TOEFL opens the door to many more universities. Thus, the institutes will have to evaluate their competitive strengths and arrive at a degree of openness that best serves the strategic goals of the university.


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