Pardon the Disruption … Innovation Changes How We Think About Higher Education

The first online course from MITx titled 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, offered earlier this year, had more students than the entire number of living students who have graduated from the university. Indeed, that number is not far from the total of all the students enrolled there since the 19th century.

MIT reports that 155,000 people registered for MITx 6.002x and of those, approximately 23,000 tried the first problem set, 9,000 passed the midterm, and 7,157 passed the course as a whole. According to MITx: “… if the number is looked at in absolute terms, it had as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT.”

These statistics illustrate the landscape-changing potential of this “disruptive innovation” taking place on the shores of the Charles River. Learning technologies now being used in the massive open online course (MOOC) movement, some suggest, will change the way we think about higher education. MOOCs are based on an open-networked learning pedagogy where participants are typically distributed and course materials are dispersed across the web.

The new generation of MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard (edX), are free to anyone with Internet access, feature interactive technology, open admissions, and provide the ability to teach tens of thousands of students at once. MIT/Harvard edX contends that these courses are as rigorous as their campus counterparts and offer exceptional instruction with the best of technology–including online interactive learning, automated assessment, and a credential of mastery for individuals successfully completing the courses.

“We’ve crossed the tipping point,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, the worldwide online learning initiative of MIT and Harvard University. Agarwal anticipates that the courses being launched in the autumn of 2012 will have at least a half-million students—and probably many more.

Ultimately, students from more than 160 countries registered for 6.002x. The majority of the traffic on the MITx site came from the U.S., India and the United Kingdom. The countries that followed these top three were Colombia, Spain, Pakistan, Canada, Brazil, Greece and Mexico.

Truly worldwide in scope, MITx reported that a 15-year-old from Mongolia received a perfect score on the final exam – an achievement that should not be diminished. According to Agarwal “… the Mongolian teen shared that distinction with only 300 students enrolled in the 6002x course.”

Embracing the fast-moving changes

Popularized by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, “disruptive innovation” is described as change, usually technological, that causes upheaval of an entire industry sector.

Indeed, some observe that what we are seeing at edX and other similar ventures (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, etc.) may be the catalyst that will displace established ways of thinking about the role of higher education institutions—and as some observers posit—move us from an instruction paradigm to a learning paradigm where instead of colleges existing to provide instruction, colleges will have to exist as institutions that produce learning.

By leveraging the vast resources available via the Internet and by using the technology available today through the use of multimedia, instructional design, automated assessment and web-based faculty-student interactive strategies, the classroom experience is being re-created and high-quality learning is now available to those individuals who might not otherwise have access or the financial wherewithal – here and around the world.

An unsustainable business model?

Those who say that MOOCs have the potential to undermine the finances of colleges and universities refer to the destabilization of the newspaper business brought about by the Internet and disruption of the fixed-line telephony business brought about by cellular phone technology.

Questions arise that challenge the status quo. If students can access high-quality academic material for little or no cost, will higher education institutions be obliged to prove the value of their institutions’ educational experience? If the content of university courses are freely available and a click-away, especially from institutions such as MIT or Harvard where individuals can learn from world-renowned scholars and scientists, what exactly are students paying for?

Some make cogent arguments about the value of the traditional college experience, but at a time when many higher education institutions are dealing with protests over soaring tuition and student debt, rising costs and shrinking budgets, questions about value are becoming increasingly relevant.

Industry upheaval as seen through the lens of financial viability is becoming more apparent. In the U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 college rankings edition, the authors write that the existing structure invites aggressive new forms of competition. “If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with serious cost-cutting and painful reorganizations.” They further observe that questions such as “Is the consumer getting the product we promised? What do you actually learn here?” will be increasingly asked.

Foreshadowing change are questions about the unsustainable business model of the university. A recent Bain study of more than 1,700 colleges and universities shows that one-third of all colleges are on an “unsustainable path.” This study also shows that an additional 28% are” … at risk of slipping into an unsustainable condition.” Similarly, debt taken on by colleges has risen 88% since 2001.

As higher education institutions move toward opening up their digital campuses worldwide, other converging forces are accelerating the transformation of the American higher education landscape—and it’s happening at light speed.

Next: The Value Gap in Higher Education

Philip DiSalvio is dean of University College at University of Massachusetts Boston.

 

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