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Why hasn’t higher education been more disrupted?

By Troy Williams
September 2nd, 2015

Making the case for today’s colleges and universities to seriously consider expanding their offerings to include online courses—for both full-time students living on campus as well as those looking to take a couple of courses remotely.

innovation-universities-practiceVirtually every industry has been fundamentally changed by the rise of the Internet. However, even though we are now in a second wave of disruption with the shift to mobile, higher education still remains largely unchanged. Why?

Year after year, students graduate from high school and move on to traditional 4-year colleges and universities that have remained fairly consistent in the way they operate. For the most part, conventional textbooks are still purchased, students still attend face-to-face classes with their professors, and courses are still taught directly from the assigned texts. How is it that this one particular industry has managed to stay relatively unaffected by the upsurge of the Internet and mobile technologies? Are these institutions resistant to change, or are they simply thriving as they are with their tried-and-true methods?

Alternate Path, Few Options

As the Internet has grown and evolved over the past two decades, many predicted that this technology would completely transform education. While it has certainly impacted many aspects of education and is present in the daily lives of students, it has yet to alter higher education as we know it. Online courses offer the flexibility some need in order to achieve their goals, but most students still rely on traditional paths when looking to further their education. One could argue that online learning doesn’t offer the college experience most are looking for, but does that truly matter when the end result—a degree—is the same?

Many traditional institutions are carried by their reputation, which keeps the applications and funding steadily rolling in year after year. Yet, while online universities are gaining popularity and credibility, they are not yet held in the same regard.

However, this new generation of learners who have been exposed to the Internet throughout their lives may be able to more readily accept online options for furthering their education. Since the formative years of these students have included so many other aspects of the Internet, why not learning? In a world where flexibility is key, the next wave of learners will be looking for new ways to achieve their goals that fit in with their lifestyles.

Because Just a Degree Isn’t Enough

In today’s society, earning a college degree simply isn’t enough to land a dream job. Many college graduates need to quickly obtain an entry-level position, which may or may not be in their field of choice, in order to begin paying down expensive loans. Meanwhile, those who opt to join the workforce while going to school part-time are able to gain experience while working toward a degree, which gives them the advantage of a foot in the door.

As paying for college becomes more of a burden, working alongside classes becomes a better solution. This is where online learning takes the lead as the best option for today’s students.

Although online learning has yet to become a real threat to traditional higher education institutions, this could change at any moment.

According to a report from Innosight and the Center for American Progress (CAP), the pace of substitution for fully online learning vs. traditional classroom instruction is rapidly increasing. When measuring the percentage of college students who reported having taken at least one of their courses online against graduates who never took an online course, the number shot from 10 percent in 2002 up to 29 percent in 2009, and is predicted to reach nearly 75 percent by 2019 (Christensen, 2011).

In order to stay current with the times, today’s colleges and universities should seriously consider expanding their offerings to include online courses—for both full-time students living on campus as well as those looking to just take one or two courses at a time remotely. By utilizing the Internet, these institutions can open spots to students they may otherwise have not been able to accommodate and generate additional funds. This will help them thrive in a world that has been disrupted by the Internet, rather than falling behind.

With the consistently increasing costs of higher education, it’s likely we will soon see a disruption in the industry. Although it hasn’t hit yet, ongoing frustrations over tuition costs along with ever-growing applicant pools may just be the driving forces that disrupt higher education as we know it. Earning solid grades in high school is not enough to guarantee a spot at a top university these days—students need to add countless clubs, volunteer work, and awards to their application in order to stand out in the pile.

Today’s students are likely ready to seek out alternative routes for furthering their education, and the Internet is more than ready to provide those alternatives.

Reference: Christensen, Clayton M.; Horn, Michael B.; Caldera, Louis; and Soares, Louis. Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education. Center for American Progress, 2011.

Troy Williams HeadshotTroy Williams is president and general manager of Macmillan New Ventures, where he is responsible for identifying emerging technologies and trends that will have a major impact on student performance and outcomes.


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