Why Online Education Will Attain Full Scale (Pt. 2): Disruption?

Why Online Education Will Attain Full Scale (Pt. 2): Disruption?

Will disruption lead to full scale online education? A recent report thinks so...

The report, issued by the Center for American Progress and Innosight Institute entitled Disrupting College is interesting reading for anyone interested in online education. The report claims that online learning is a disruptive innovation because it is an "upwardly scalable technology driver" -- that is, something which is capable of enabling full scale online education.

The report's authors clearly believe that online education will attain full scale. Their prediction about the growth of online learning in higher education -- 50 percent of all college students will take at least one online course by 2014 -- is in line with the one I made in my recent JALN article -- although their prediction is on the optimistic side.

The key question is, what evidence is there that Disrupting College is an accurate assessment of what's likely to happen? I ask this question as someone who has been a relatively harsh critic of Christensen et al.'s previous work in trying to apply their theory of disruptive innovation to education, as illustrated by their 2008 book Disrupting Class which predicted massively disruptive innovation in K-12 education.

My first reaction to their Disrupting College report is that they seem to have a more nuanced perspective on higher education: they acknowledge its complexity, including its role in fulfilling multiple important societal functions. They clearly appreciate the differences among faculty at different types of institutions. They recognize the importance of research institutions.

Their recommendation to "frame online education as a sustaining innovation" is a clever one, and will contribute to full scale online education if it is followed. Their other recommendations for change are more disappointing from a policy perspective; they clearly have cast their lot with the for-profit IHEs, and they are mostly about college as job prep, along with a continued role for research and highly competitive institutions. At first glance, the educational ecosystem they envision is a rather bleak and monotonous one, which raises the question: to what extent should the growth in American higher education be driven by employment preparation?

It's hard to know to what extent their various policy recommendations will be followed. It's clear that the authors believe that disruption leads to full scale online education. It's also clear, however, that their particular recipe for disruption is not the only path which leads to full scale online education.

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