What Online Learning Reveals About Innovation in Higher Education

Opinion | Digital Learning

What Online Learning Reveals About Innovation in Higher Education

By Arthur Levine     Jan 26, 2022

What Online Learning Reveals About Innovation in Higher Education

Change in higher education historically has been a dynamic process involving two sectors—one consisting of mainstream institutions and the other a grab bag of diverse, nontraditional organizations, service providers and emerging models. Innovation has tended to originate in the nontraditional sector, where experimentation abounds, then migrate to traditional institutions.

In contrast, students have moved from the mainstream to the periphery as the benefits of innovative approaches become better known and accepted.

Today, in the nontraditional sector, organizations and services have abandoned key elements of traditional higher education practice. They’re rejecting time- and place-based education; creating low-cost degrees; adopting competency- or outcome-based education; emphasizing digital technologies; focusing on populations underrepresented in traditional higher education; and offering pioneering subject matters and certifications. Knowledge organizations, ranging from libraries and museums to media companies and software makers, have entered the postsecondary marketplace, offering content, instruction and certification. Entrepreneurial for-profits have attempted to poach universities’ most profitable programs in areas such as general education, business and education, seeking to offer cheaper, faster, better, and/or more convenient versions.

Major innovation, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen explained, drives consumers from the mainstream to the periphery. He noted that the initial products developed at the periphery are poor in quality and attract previous non-consumers who cannot afford the mainstream version or see real advantage in the alternative. For example, Christensen recalled his $2, staticky childhood transistor radio. He had to stand on a hill and point the radio west to hear anything. But it was exactly what Christensen wanted. It was mobile, cheap, and played rock ’n’ roll without parental oversight.

In general, mainstream producers do not switch to the new, low-margin, low-quality product because they are heavily invested in the existing product and consumers want it. Yet as quality improves, more consumers abandon the traditional product in favor of the new. The migration grows and the peripheral product becomes the principal consumer choice, disrupting the original enterprise and ultimately becoming the new mainstream.

Consider online instruction.

At first, each new communications technology mimics its predecessor. Radio programming brought the live entertainment people attended—theater, concerts and sporting events—to the airwaves prior to creating its own unique programing. Television turned popular radio programs into TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Life of Riley,” and “Jack Benny.”

Similarly, in their earliest days, online courses were basically lectures and readings made digital. The interactive medium was used for one-way communication, from teacher to student. Not surprisingly, online courses did not have the same opportunities for discussion, teacher-student interaction and peer-to-peer contact as in-person classes. It was a lot like Christensen’s transistor radio. The earliest users were students unable to attend or afford in-person classes.

For the most part, online education was a product of the periphery, first established by the University of Phoenix, which offered a wholly online degree in the late 1980s. By 1997 and 1998, four new universities or university subunits were created to offer online education: NYU Online, Inc, a for-profit spinoff; Western Governors University, a collaboration among 19 state governors seeking to break the traditional higher education mold; California Virtual University, a public statewide university offering online classes; and Trident University, a for-profit Internet-based provider. NYU Online and California Virtual closed within two years.

Until the pandemic, online enrollments were overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of institutions at the periphery. Only about 100 U.S. institutions offered primarily online degree programs and 5 percent of those institutions enrolled nearly half of all online degree students. For instance, Western Governors University (120,000 students), Southern New Hampshire University (150,000 students), and the University of Phoenix (94,000 students), together accounted for 38 percent of all online-degree enrollment, according to data they provided to me.

The pandemic forced nearly every institution nationwide to shift to online instruction, causing its migration from the periphery to the mainstream dramatically faster than any previous technology innovation. But as the crisis progressed, online instruction penalized traditional institutions and rewarded peripheral providers. On average, the former lost enrollment owing to declines in already matriculated students, smaller entering classes, and reduced foreign student enrollment. The latter, which could offer cheaper, more convenient and more established online courses, experienced user growth. Coursera, for example, reported that as of the end of 2020, it had grown to having more than 77 million registered learners on its platform from more than 190 countries—although not all of those people are taking courses for credit or are seeking credentials. FutureLearn, an online platform owned by the British Open University and Australia’s Seek Group, reported a 50 percent increase in new students. Meanwhile, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, the University of the People, Modern States Education Alliance, and StraighterLine also reported rapid increases in enrollment, according to my research. Overall, “primarily online institutions” in the U.S. saw enrollment increases in fall 2020, but decreases in fall 2021, for both undergraduates and graduate students, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Today, online-degree programs continue to be concentrated at the periphery, less so in the professions. Meanwhile, a growing number of traditional institutions are moving into the online-degree marketplace, and for-profit Online Program Management firms have sprung up to help them accomplish this. It’s a nearly $4 billion industry worldwide with leaders such as 2U, Academic Partnerships, Bisk, Noodle, Pearson and Wiley Education Services.

In retrospect, Christensen was right—with one caveat. The migration of students to the periphery is actually accelerating, but mainstream higher education has not been disrupted. Whether the pandemic-era pivot to online learning among traditional institutions will lead the mainstream to capture a greater share of migrants remains to be seen.

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