The Benefit of Open Online Classes

Massively open online courses can serve as a supplement to traditional higher education, and shouldn't necessarily be seen as a threat.

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Following pilot programs, Antioch University students will be able to take Coursera-provided courses for college credit.
Following pilot programs, Antioch University students will be able to take Coursera-provided courses for credit.

Joshua Kim is the director of learning and technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College.

Clay Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation has captured the imagination of educational technology higher circles in which I travel. For example, at the recent EDUCAUSE conference, the largest gathering of academic technology professionals, the emergence of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, was largely framed as a disruptive innovation. But is that true?  

According to Christensen's theoretical framework, incumbent organizations (including traditional universities such as where I am employed) excel at sustaining innovations. We are very good at making incremental improvements in our services; improvements that both respond to immediate customer (students, parents, faculty, legislators) needs but also tend to raise costs (tuition).

Disruptive innovations challenge existing models by offering a service or product (education, credentials) that is not the result of linear or incremental improvements. This new service or product is often appealing to nonconsumers, as initially the service/product is both of lower quality and of much lower costs than that offered by the incumbent. Today's free MOOCs from Harvard/MIT's edX division cannot compete with a Harvard or MIT educational experience or degree, but edX allows the vast numbers of learners unable to access a Harvard or MIT education to do so for no cost (the classes) or very low cost (the future edX credential).  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Free open online courses from Coursera or Udacity don't substitute for a traditional higher education experience so much as offer a different model for what higher education can be. This new model unbundles learning from credentialing, with cohort-based online classes being offered for free, while value added services (such as taking an exam for a credential) can involve payments. Credentialing charges will never be as high as traditional tuition payments, but they don't need to be as MOOCs bring higher education to scale.

All of which leads to a few important questions:

  • Will MOOCs be the disruptive innovation that does to higher-ed what personal computers did to the minicomputer industry, what mp3s did to CDs, or what Netflix did to Blockbuster?  
  • Will higher-ed incumbents be capable of recognizing that their core business model, a bundled high cost program based on scarcity, is threatened by massively open online education?
  • Will traditional higher education organizations be able to recognize the emergence of a disruptive innovation such as MOOCS, and then have the agility to realign investments away from incremental improvements and towards fundamentally different models?
  • [See the U.S. News Top Online Education Programs.]

    While Christensen's disruptive innovation theory provides a useful framework for examining both changing models of higher education, and for calibrating both opportunities and threats for our traditional institutions, I think that there are some limits to disruptive innovation theory when applied to higher ed, and that we need to be careful in assuming that higher ed will follow the path of newspapers, record companies, or microcomputer producers.

    I see two limitations in the disruption innovation model as applied to higher-ed and massively open online courses:

    1. Higher ed as a service: Christensen's model predicts the evolution of products much better than it explains the path of services. Higher education is a service. Attempts to produce higher education misunderstand both the nature of learning and knowledge production (research), the two core missions of the higher education industry. An argument that higher education services should be unbundled—like separating research from teaching, or residential life from classes—may have merit. But disruptive innovation theory is less about the unbundling of services than the replacement of whole product categories with new entrants. Services, unlike products, depend primarily on person-to-person interaction. High value-add services, such as higher education, require highly trained (and expensive) people. A massively open online course is only one input into an authentic learning experience. MOOCs will become another one of the tools that we use to construct and deliver a postsecondary education.  

    [See the U.S. News ranking of the World's Best Universities.]

    2. Higher ed diversity: Companies that have been turned upside down by disruptive innovations were largely in consolidated industries. Blockbuster dominated the video rental store business. The American auto industry was consolidated around three companies before the lower cost Japanese manufactures brought their low priced cars to market. RCA dominated the radio market prior to Sony introducing cheap transistor radios. The contrast with higher education to these industries that were disrupted is striking. U.S. higher education is best characterized by its diversity. With almost 4,500 degree granting institutions, we enjoy an incredible range of models and structures in higher education. Free open online education may represent a threat to some institutions, but many more will benefit from the ability to utilize these materials to increase quality and lower costs. Some higher education institutions will be able to leverage MOOCs as a new opportunity to increase brand value. We should not mistake the potential for some individual institutions to have their business model fundamentally disrupted by MOOCs with the conclusion that all of the incumbents will be disrupted. More will be strengthened than weakened.

    This is not to say we shouldn't experiment with MOOCs. The advent of massively open online courses is a great thing: It will push us to rethink our modes of education, and move us away from courses that are about information delivery and towards classes that are based on the co-construction of knowledge between students and instructors. MOOCs will also help us advance our mission to share the knowledge that we produce with the world, and what we learn from effective massive open online courses will filter into our face-to-face, blended, and online course for our "regular" students. 

    [See U.S. News's inaugural Most Connected Colleges.]

    The key for existing higher education institutions will be to simultaneously embrace experimentation while maintaining faith, and investments, in our core mission of bundling learning, research, and service.  

    Small classes taught by knowledge producers within learning communities may not describe the majority of postsecondary institutions in the United States, as community colleges, adult learners, and adjunct instructors make up the bulk of the higher ed story, but this traditional model should be bolstered rather than threatened by the rise of the MOOCs. A free massive course is the best demonstration of the value of an intimate seminar. 

    When it comes to higher ed, we should recognize the potential of disruptive innovations such as MOOCs, but not fall into the trap of underestimating the power of sustained incremental improvements. 

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