Education Disruption

Education Disruption

How online education is changing traditional, nonprofit colleges.

Like so many other enterprises, higher education is facing disruptive change. It’s not only due to relatively high fixed costs or tuition rates that have increased far faster than inflation. Some believe that higher education will be the next nonprofit sector to experience the disruptive consequences of digital technology.

Harvard professor, author, and management strategist Clayton Christensen defines a “disruptive innovation” as one that “allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.” This is the opposite of “sustaining innovations” that companies pursue at the higher tiers of their markets, helping them succeed “by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers.”

Christensen notes the growing availability and sophistication of online courses from higher ed institutions, and the global appetite for learning that these courses are fueling. By now, most of us have participated in webinars and other online training. Everything from professional development, personal enrichment, continuing education requirements, certification courses, and BAs, MAs, and even PhDs are now offered online.

And while online offerings once paled compared with “being there,” they now benefit from more robust software applications. An online course is now a full-scale production delivered with interactive, multimedia content. Professors are using these capabilities to reach hundreds of thousands of students, and the New York Times called 2012 the Year of the MOOC (massive open online course).

MOOCs are not just being offered by established higher education institutions. New enterprises are taking shape to offer online courses, avoiding the burden of expensive physical infrastructure and human capital of traditional universities. Some of these are fee-based and accredited, such as Minneapolis-based Capella University, while others are free, like Khan Academy. One new entity, the Minerva Project, plans to offer a “rigorous and uniquely challenging university education to the brightest of the world’s future leaders.”

The University of Minnesota now provides a modest number of offerings through Coursera, a nonprofit course aggregator and technology provider that hosts courses from a growing list of partners (83 as of early July). EdX, a Coursera competitor, was formed by MIT and Harvard using open-source software.

These developments have several implications for employers, colleges and universities, students, and parents:

  • Expect to see more job applicants whose credentials come from online sources, and whose “degree” may be a badge, completion certificate, or other nontraditional credential.
  • More organizations and businesses will enter the educational sector; it’s possible to design and build your own MOOC. Such course offerings could prove popular with consumers and useful to marketers as brand extensions or promotional tools. In the cultural sector, music festivals, art museums, and science centers are getting into the act. What educational experiences could companies in the health care, food, or publishing industries offer?
  • Fitting classes into a busy schedule is much easier with the ever-available Internet. Always wanted to learn a foreign language? Want to get certified in a programming language? Need a math class to prepare for your GMAT? Need continuing education? Do it from home in your pajamas.

Our state is home to not only a Big 10 university but also many private colleges. Just a selection of the state’s higher ed—the University of Minnesota and the 17 institutions that belong to the Minnesota Private College Council—employ more than 38,000 faculty and staff, offer more than 130 majors, and spend more than $4 billion annually on capital and operations. Their success is important to the state, not only because of the money they spend but also the Minnesota employees they train.

Christensen thinks that for these institutions to stay competitive, they must first become adept at combining online technology with on-campus experiences. Doing both well will allow colleges to serve more students and in new ways.

Second, he says schools have to emphasize some academic fields more than others. Christensen doubts that colleges can afford to be as broad in their offerings as in the past. Taking online offerings into account, higher education faces many more competitors than before. Rather than trying to do all things well, schools need to specialize and become experts in a few fields of study.

Third, Christensen recommends committing to the core scholarly functions that are at the heart of a university’s purpose. Original research and scholarship by talented, dedicated faculty is perhaps the least “disruptable” of a university’s functions.

Just to see what it’s like, I’ve enrolled in two MOOCs (about music) and learned a lot. If Clayton Christensen offers one, I think I’ll try it.