Voices in Education

Is Online Learning a Disruptive Innovation?
Depending on the sources you turn to for your higher-education reading, you might come away with the perception that online learning is a risky experiment taking place in the margins of higher education—largely under the oversight of profit-seeking, fly-by-night diploma mills.

The reality is that a quarter of all students currently enrolled at colleges and universities are taking at least one course online, and one-in-ten is enrolled in a degree program that is delivered entirely online.

So while online learners still constitute a minority, the activity is far more mainstream than many would have you believe—and students enrolled in these online courses and degree programs are often studying at some of our best public and private universities. For a variety of reasons too complicated to explain here, there are many people who would prefer to sweep these facts under the carpet.

When online higher education isn’t being characterized as risky and marginal, it is often taken to task for not having revolutionized higher education enough. We have, after all, been teaching online for nearly two decades now—when, these impatient observers ask, will the traditional classroom finally disappear?

These are, of course, very traditional responses to innovation.

Some people gravitate toward denial and denigration while others lean toward hyperbole and inflated expectations. Perhaps the more important question to ask is, what kind of impact will online learning have in the future? Will it change the world of learning in some fundamental way?

One way to try to arrive at an answer to these questions is to turn to Clayton Christensen’s notion of the “disruptive innovation.” In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation to explain how small high-tech upstarts like Apple were able to turn the table on entrenched players like IBM. Christensen, along with colleagues Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, later adapted this concept to the field of education in their 2008 book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

Disruptive innovations, the authors argue, are not breakthrough improvements. In fact, they’re often inferior products. What makes them compelling is that they are cheaper and easier to use. What makes them forces to be reckoned with is that they serve new customers who could never have afforded the superior forerunner but who are attracted to the ease and cost-effectiveness of the newer offering.

Online learning has some of these characteristics. Insofar as the online environment lacks the immediacy of face-to-face group experiences, it could be argued that it is in some ways an “inferior” offering. While some experts argue that online learning can and should be more cost effective to deliver than traditional classroom instruction, the reality for many schools is that they grow their online efforts alongside their classroom operations, and thus they see their operational costs increasing rather than decreasing. And students are often charged the same tuition—or even higher—for online programs as for campus programs. Perhaps the most promising evidence of online learning being a disruptive innovation is the fact that it seems to meet the needs of a different kind of student—the working adult, studying part-time, and self-disciplined enough to complete programs through largely independent effort.

This is the trend we’ll have to keep an eye on going forward. Could online learning supplant the traditional classroom as more customers turn to the convenience and value-for-price it offers? We’ll have to wait in see. Online enrollment growth is still strong. In a few years’ time, the way the world learns may not have changed utterly—but it may well have changed in important ways.

Let’s remember that when IBM was selling mainframes, it regarded Apple’s personal computer as low-profit, marginal market opportunity. Today, of course, the market for mainframes is far smaller than the personal computer market.

About the Author: Peter J. Stokes is executive vice president and chief research officer at Eduventures, Inc. He is a contributor to Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation.