What should Oregon do with its public universities as their costs rise and the “disruptive technology’ of online learning increasingly provides lower cost alternatives? I’ve blogged previously and regularly about the possible “bubble” in higher education. I’ve advocated a total rethink of the structure of public higher ed: letting the Oregon big three go private, shifting to vouchers (usable for online programs as well) for students, and finding a new way to fund research. Recently, I was excited to note that Tim Nesbitt now advocates “extending Oregon financial aid (Opportunity Grants) to students taking online courses at the Western Governors University” (here). That would be a good step in the right direction.
Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn (authors along with Curtis W. Johnson, of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) provide further perspective in their Harvard Magazine article “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive changes comes to American higher education” (here):
…. The success of these online competitors and the crisis among many of higher education’s traditional institutions are far from unique. These are familiar steps in a process known as “disruptive innovation” that has occurred in many industries, from accounting and music to communications and computers. It is the process by which products and services that were once so expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient that only a small fraction of people could access them, are transformed into simpler, more accessible and convenient forms that are also, ultimately, lower in cost. We are seeing it happen more rapidly than one could have imagined in higher education, as online learning has exploded: roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, 25 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009.
What is exciting about this emerging reinvention it that it has significant potential to help address the challenges facing American higher education by creating an opportunity to rethink its value proposition—its cost and quality.
When America’s traditional universities arose, knowledge was scarce, which meant that research and teaching had to be coupled tightly. That is no longer the case. Today, the Internet is democratizing people’s access to knowledge and enabling learning to take place far more conveniently in a variety of contexts, locations, and times.
Online education can effect the transformation not only of curriculum but also of learning itself. Judging it by the metrics used to govern the old system is both inappropriate and limiting (as is true of all disruptive innovations). Online learning allows education to escape from the focus on credit hours logged and “seat time” in classrooms to new standards that tie progress to students’ competency and mastery of desired skills. Online courses can easily embed actionable assessments that allow students to accelerate past concepts and skills they have mastered and focus instead on where they most need help at the level most appropriate for them. In this environment, learning outcomes will be a more appropriate measure for judging students and institutions.
Although this transition has begun, much of online learning’s promise for higher education is still on the horizon…..