Does online education put traditional universities at a ‘grave risk’?

Sixty-six percent of respondents to a recent survey said online college classes were “the same or superior” to face-to-face classes.

A university’s stockpile of faculty members with Ph.D.s soon could be irrelevant if online learning continues its rapid growth and provides flexibility for students of every age, said Clayton Christensen, an authority on how innovative technologies affect businesses and economies.

Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Prescription, delivered the keynote address to an audience of higher-education officials March 7 at the American Council on Education’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Christensen outlined the ways upstart, innovative businesses have toppled the giants of industry—such as Toyota’s rise coinciding with American automakers’ downfall—and how that model might translate to colleges and universities.

While online college classes have grown more available and affordable over the past decade, Christensen said a major shift had not yet occurred in higher education. Not until online learning grew in popularity was higher education even “amenable” to a major “disruption,” he said.

“When technology gets good enough, it sucks customers out of the old into the new,” he said, referring to institutions that have specialized in online learning, rather than traditional schools that have slowly adopted online college classes. “It doesn’t work the other way around.”

That move away from traditional powerhouses of education, he said, likely would happen in the next 20 years, and elite schools should be prepared.

“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.

In the excerpt from The Innovative University, the authors point out that traditional schools “have unique competitive advantages,” including “mentoring [young students] in a special community of scholars” and “physical campuses … built at great expense.”

The traditional university learning environment is not “invaluable,” however, with “new competitive alternatives” gaining traction.

“…That puts traditional universities at a grave risk, their unique physical and human assets notwithstanding,” the authors wrote. “For the vast majority of institutions, fundamental change is essential.”

Public perception of online college classes has gradually shifted since the early 2000s.

Sixty-six percent of respondents to a recent survey said online college classes were “the same or superior” to face-to-face classes, up from 57 percent in 2003, according to Babson College’s annual survey of online education in the U.S.

Three in four respondents from public colleges and universities agreed that online college classes were equivalent to or better than a traditional education.

Also, more campus decision makers than ever agree that online instruction is “critical to the long-term strategy” of their institution.

Sixty-three percent said online college classes were a central piece to their planning, marking a 14-percent jump since the survey was first taken in 2002.

The Babson survey isn’t without its caveats, however. Accommodating a massive influx of students looking for online college classes could prove untenable for many publicly funded schools that project more budget cuts in the coming years, Babson researchers said.

“There may be some clouds on the horizon,” said Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While the sluggish economy continues to drive enrollment growth, large public institutions are feeling budget pressure and competition from the for-profit sector institutions.”

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