Online education advocates say free web programs could expand higher education to developing countries.

Online education advocates say free web programs could expand higher education to developing countries.

Although technically it was published in 2008, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael Horn, made a huge impression in the past year, and its authors spoke at numerous education conferences in 2009. Their ideas proved quite prophetic later in the year, when a new online-learning movement emerged that is sure to send shock waves throughout higher education.

If the book’s authors are right, half of all instruction will take place online within the next 10 years—and schools had better get into the online-learning market or risk losing their students to other providers.

Disruptive innovation is the business idea that, every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace, knocking the old market leaders from their perch and giving rise to new ones.

Whenever a disruptive innovation occurs, the substitution pattern in which the new model replaces the old one follows an S-curve pattern that can be calculated mathematically. At first, as the suppliers of a new innovation work out its flaws, adoption is fairly flat. But then, as the innovation improves to the point where it’s widely affordable, accessible, and delivers a satisfactory experience, adoption spikes exponentially.

This mathematical model has proven to be remarkably consistent throughout history, the authors say. And if that historical pattern holds true, then the latest disruptive innovation that is sure to affect education—online learning—is set to take off dramatically.

Online learning already has disrupted traditional education to some extent, but a new movement that began this past year could really shake up higher education: A few online startup universities are charging little or no tuition for access to a wealth of college curriculum, and advocates say these free web-based programs could help expand higher education to the developing world.

These so-called open universities are “exactly what the internet should be,” said Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People, which welcomed its first students in September. “That’s why [the internet] was invented—to enable information to flow everywhere.”

The school’s students learn from an established group of professors, both active and retired, as well as graduate students and experts in a variety of fields.

It charges between $10 and $100 to process student exams taken at the end of each semester, but beyond that, there is no tuition.

Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is another similar venture that launched this past year. Neither school is currently accredited, but officials and advisers said they are researching ways to secure accreditation. And if the free online schools take off, they could revolutionize how students worldwide earn advanced degrees.

Earlier this month, University of the People announced the addition of two widely respected scholars to its faculty lineup—a move that could help boost its credibility in the eyes of critics. And nine out of 10 students who took classes in its first term said they would recommend the university to their family and friends.


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