What e-learning reveals about innovation in higher education

Change in higher education has always been a dynamic process involving two sectors, one made up of traditional institutions and the other a collection of diverse and non-traditional organisations, service providers and emerging models. Innovation has tended to come from the non-traditional sector, where experimentation abounds, and 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 non-traditional sector, organizations and services have abandoned key elements of traditional higher education practice. They reject education based on time and place; create low-cost degrees; embracing competency- or outcome-based education; focus on digital technologies; focus on underrepresented populations in traditional higher education; and offering pioneering subjects and certifications. Knowledge organizations, ranging from libraries and museums to media companies and software makers, have entered the post-secondary market, offering content, instruction and certification. For-profit corporations have attempted to poach universities’ most profitable programs in fields such as general education, business, and education, seeking to offer cheaper, faster, better, and/or more convenient versions. .

A major innovation, says Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, is pushing mainstream consumers to the periphery. He noted that initial products developed at the periphery are of poor quality and attract older non-consumers who cannot afford the mainstream version or who see real benefit in the alternative. For example, Christensen remembered his childhood $2 static transistor radio. He had to stand on a hill and point the radio west to hear anything. But that was exactly what Christensen wanted. He was mobile, cheap, and played rock ‘n’ roll without parental supervision.

In general, traditional 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 and more consumers are abandoning the traditional product in favor of the new. The migration grows and the edge product becomes the primary consumer choice, disrupting the original business and eventually becoming the new mainstream.

Consider online education.

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

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

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

Until the pandemic, online registrations were overwhelmingly concentrated in a small number of establishments on the periphery. Only about 100 US institutions offered primarily online degree programs, and 5% of these institutions enrolled nearly half of all graduate students online. For example, 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% of all online degree enrollment, according to data. that they gave me.

The pandemic has forced almost every institution in the country to shift to online education, causing it to migrate from the periphery to the mainstream much faster than any previous technological innovation. But as the crisis progressed, online education penalized traditional institutions and rewarded peripheral providers. On average, the former have lost enrollment due to declining numbers of students already enrolled, fewer incoming classes, and fewer enrollments from overseas students. The latter, which could offer cheaper, more convenient and more established online courses, saw a growth in users. Coursera, for example, reported that by the end of 2020, it had more than 77 million learners registered on its platform in more than 190 countries, although not all of these people are taking courses for credit or not. not looking for degrees. FutureLearn, an online platform owned by the British Open University and Australia’s Seek Group, reported a 50% increase in new students. Meanwhile, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, 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 United States saw enrollment increase in fall 2020 but decline in fall 2021 for both undergraduate and graduate students, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Today, online degree programs continue to be focused on the periphery, less in the professions. Meanwhile, a growing number of traditional institutions are jumping into the online degree market, and for-profit online program management companies have sprung up to help them get there. It is a nearly $4 billion global industry with leaders such as 2U, Academic Partnerships, Bisk, Noodle, Pearson and Wiley Education Services.

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

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