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Disrupting Higher Education: Technology and Online Learning

There are calls for change in higher education, among them improvement in graduation rates and access to education, ways to help institutions deal with massive budget cuts without increasing tuition and fees, and increased employability of graduates and higher starting salaries. While many agree on the problems at hand, there are no clear-cut solutions.

You've likely heard of or recently read something about disruptive innovation and disruptive technology. Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, co-founders of the non-profit think tank Innosight Institutedescribe disruptive innovation as "innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable." This concept is not new in business and industry, and it is gaining ground in the field of education, particularly as new technologies are adapted for use in delivering learning opportunities. The many calls for change in higher education are, in a way, calls for disruption in the status quo. Can we do things differently to produce learning products and services that are less complicated and more affordable than the traditional models?

What is disruptive technology?

Disruptive technologies often emerge to fill a void in the market at first, offering unique features from those of their existing competitors. They may begin with limited overall performance, but evolve to achieve greater success in the long term. Christensen provides the earliest desktop computers as an example [PDF]. These products filled a gap in the market competing against more productive, and much bulkier, mainframes. These early computers weren't as powerful, but were much more portable, less expensive, and brought computing to a larger audience. Sound familiar? In the context of higher education, online learning options have followed a similar pattern, allowing a larger population of potential students to engage in higher education pursuits, in a more convenient format, and in some cases, at a reduced cost as compared to a traditional university. 

Moving courses from the lecture hall to a website isn't disruptive innovation in education. To be disruptive in a way that brings about long-term change, improved practices and student outcomes means a focus on quality as well as delivery. The Center for American Progress features the recent Disrupting College report by Christensen and his co-authors, who call for us to "shift the focus of higher education policy away from how to enable more students to afford higher education to how we can make a quality postsecondary education affordable." This affordability alludes not only to cost, but also to value. Smaller computers eventually found more widespread success than mainframes, with improved functionality and more value for the consumer.

Realizing Benefits and Overcoming Challenges

So, how can higher education be affected by disruptive technologies, particularly online delivery? There is a potential for customization of learning activities for individual students and smaller groups of students. A student-centered approach to design, delivery, and instruction can allow for different learning paths and pace. There is an opportunity to re-think the overall structure of a traditional institution, program, and course, integrating concepts and skills across traditional academic disciplines. And of course access is possible to learners who are in geographic regions where study options are not available, who are already working and have families, and who can benefit from the "anytime, anywhere" flexibility of online learning options.

Katrina Meyer, an associate professor at The University of Memphis, reviews her application of Christensen's innovative disruptor approach to online learning in a report entitled "The Role of Disruptive Technology in the Future of Higher Education." This report includes her findings of "early evidence of disruption and some wishful thinking." Meyer identifies three essential qualities of disruptive online learning that:

  • is student-centered with a primary focus on learning achievement,
  • provides flexible options for individual learners that are both motivating and connected to their lives outside the classroom, and
  • promotes the importance of and allows for iterations of trial and revision, with both success and failure, moving toward the development of effective solutions to existing problems.

Meyer also reminds us of potential pitfalls associated with online learning formats by stating that "disruption also manifests in more negative trends: increased plagiarism, cheating, and distraction." As higher education administrators and instructors move forward with the development and delivery of online options, there is also a need to reassess existing policies and to embrace the change in existing work tasks that are inevitable. A new way of learning often also means a new way of teaching, and change can be slow to take root in traditional higher education settings.

Who and what are the disruptors?

It's not just about the technology. It's also about how the technology is used. Finding the right tool for the job and then applying it effectively are important for any task, especially those associated with learning. And with new tools being developed every day, it's easy to think of all of them as potential disruptors to the norm. Disruption of the status quo can come as a result of a new approach and use of technology in online learning, including:

New ways to approach the online delivery of learning materials and experiences are being developed and tested by a variety of sources, including:

  • Education start-ups: entrepreneurs and small businesses developing specific applications to meet existing needs in online education.
  • Investors and partnerships: funding opportunities like the Next Generation Learning Challenges, and encouraging the exploration of innovative approaches.
  • Districts and campuses: establishing small and large scale initiatives to not only integrate technology, but make it a central consideration of curriculum development.
  • Student support services: libraries working with digital databases and online citation tracking systems are just one way academic support services are involved with disruptive technologies.

"It is a process, not an event."

This quote from Christensen helps to set the tone moving forward. We can't expect that things will change overnight, but that there will be a much longer, more complicated transition. So, only time will tell how higher education and online learning may change as a result of disruptive technologies and innovative approaches. It's too early to declare online learning as a true disruptor, permanently changing the way higher education is delivered, assessed, and managed. What are your thoughts on the potential disruption of higher education via online delivery? Share your experiences with the benefits and challenges encountered from your perspective.