“The way you define goodness at a university” used to be finding the most educated researchers and teachers to create and teach course material. But with the world “overcome by the amount of knowledge that can be taught” in the digital age, Christensen said, that old model is losing relevance.

He said “the traditional way of delivering knowledge” is standardized and inflexible, whereas online college classes allow—even encourage—customization that appeals to a wider audience of students, especially as college degrees become a requisite for career success.

In an excerpt from The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, a forthcoming book written by Christensen and Henry Eyring, Christensen pointed to the latest generation of learning management systems that use algorithms similar to those used by commercial websites to predict what a web user is most likely to buy.

These algorithms “infer the ways that a student learns best, based on his or her learning performance and interactions with course material,” the authors wrote.

National data support Christensen’s warning to traditional universities. Online student enrollment increased by 21 percent in 2010, according to the annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning. Overall, higher-education enrollment grew by 2 percent.

The survey of more than 2,500 colleges and universities showed online college classes gained 1 million students from 2009. More than 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one web-based class in the fall 2009 semester.


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