A few years ago, I identified a few organizations that I thought were doing things in higher education that were examples of approaches that potentially could be disruptive to the field (Potential disruptions in the higher education space). Among these is StraighterLine, which offers primarily introductory level college courses much more inexpensively and flexibly than traditional colleges and universities. Entry level courses are relatively similar in many if not most colleges, and at the same time are the most profitable for the colleges because they are most often taught in large classes. If students in large numbers were to opt for the StraighterLIne combination of online convenience and low cost, it would prove quite disruptive to the budgets of many traditional institutions.
Time has moved on since my original designation of StraighterLine as a potential disruptor, and an update is called for to see if StraighterLine continues to look like a disruptor. For context, it may be useful to review some of the steps Christensen has identified in the development of a disruptor. The typical disruptor begins by using a new approach to make a product that is decidedly inferior to the existing dominant product, but which has some characteristics that are different from those of the dominant product. Almost always the approach is one that leads to a less expensive product. However, If this new product is "good enough" to meet the needs of some set of customers, it will sell despite being inferior as judged in the dominant market. Most often this set of customers is composed of those whose needs are not met by traditional products ("nonconsumers"), or for whom the traditional product does the job but with too many expensive and unneeded "bells and whistles" ("overserved"). If the new product does find a market, then the producer has the financial resources to improve the product over time. The product thus increasingly becomes comparable in quality to the dominant product, but at lower cost. In the final stage of disruption, the traditional customer base finds the quality and price combination of the new product to be superior to the quality and price combination of the old product, and move rather swiftly to the new product. As Christensen points out, this entire process can sometimes be quite rapid, but often takes many years to reach the tipping point.