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U. of Phoenix Lectures by Clayton Christensen Redefine ‘Model Students’

Disruption models

When Clayton M. Christensen spoke to an audience of liberal-arts-college officials in New York this month about the ways “disrupters” could use the advantages of distance education to upend higher education as we know it, he made his point with an example from his own experience with the University of Phoenix.

In 2011, Phoenix asked him to deliver some 90-minute lectures on innovation and other business principles. Rather than hold them where he teaches, at Harvard Business School, Phoenix rented a spot at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where he could speak with a view of Boston Harbor as his backdrop. He was struck by the view, he said, but even more so by the people to whom he was lecturing.

“They were truly beautiful people,” he related. He asked them where they attended college and was surprised when they replied, “Oh, we’re not students, we’re models.”

For appearance’ sake, the producers had put attractive people in the seats for the moments when the cameras cut away from Mr. Christensen and panned the audience. They also added spiffy animations and graphics.

Why not use real students? According to a Phoenix spokesman, “The production team hired extras who could be there for the day, since the production required a major time commitment for the day.”

Mr. Christensen has told the story before. His goal in New York was not to mock the University of Phoenix but to illustrate the kind of souped-up edutainment that traditional colleges might soon be competing with, and to highlight how, as he has contended, disruption often comes from organizations that aren’t serving the high end of the market.

“Because the low end always wins, I didn’t dismiss these people,” he said. “This actually is a very different game than we’ve been in before.”

Mr. Christensen is hardly about to give up his job at Harvard. But he is continuing his affiliation with Phoenix. Its new executive-education program, known as Innovator’s Accelerator, features video lectures by Mr. Christensen and two other co-authors of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators: the business professors Jeff Dyer, of Brigham Young University, and Hal Gregersen, of Insead.

Those videos, too, feature spiffy graphics. But no models posing as students. The videos were all shot in a studio, without an audience.

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