Technology’s Continuing Struggle to Disrupt Higher Ed

Generally the term "disruptive" has a negative connotation. However, with regards to technology, it often is thought of as quite positive. "Disruptive innovation" is a phrase often used by economists to describe how introducing new ways of doing things can tear down old processes in favor of better, more efficient ones. Many believe that technology can have this effect on higher education. That is, by leveraging existing internet technologies, educational opportunities can become available to more students, with better outcomes and at lower costs.

A recent conference hosted by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), highlighted many of the existing technologies in higher education today. Virtual desktops, iPad compatible materials and 24/7 student tutoring services accompany existing online courses. Many providers rely on a blended learning approach, where in-class and online learning exist together, complementing one another.

Despite these success stories, many of the conference’s panelists shared the challenges they face when trying to implement online learning technologies. The biggest problem, it seems, is the acceptance of the very concept of online learning. So often one hears people snicker when an online university is mentioned. But this is not a fair characterization of online learning, nor of the vast majority of institutions that provide online courses.

A meta-analysis published by the US Department of Education reviewed more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning and concludes that, “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Yet, the public largely continues to assume online learning is of inferior quality. A recent Pew survey reports that while 51 percent of university presidents (themselves a bit of a skeptical bunch) believe online courses provide equal educational value compared to face-to-face instruction, only 29 percent of adults among the general public believe this is true. Why is this the case?

The answer is actually quite simple: consumers of higher education use prestige as the signal of higher quality because commonly accepted measures of actual student learning do not exist.

Since we have no way of knowing if students at “University A” learn more than those at “University B,” we use institutional prestige as a proxy for the quality of instruction to differentiate the schools. Ignoring the fact that prestige may be a poor proxy in the first place, the problem for online learning (and new universities primarily offering online courses) is that building prestige takes a long time and requires considerable resources.

Richard Vedder argues that three words, all beginning with the letter “I,” are collectively the key to reforming higher education: incentives, information and innovation. He reasons that incentives in higher education need realigned to encourage students to study more, faculty to take a stronger interest in student instruction and institutions themselves to provide the best possible educational value. To fix incentives, better information is essential. Currently universities compete on prestige, but they should be competing based on the quality of student learning. Vedder concludes that with information on actual student learning and realigned incentives, innovation will naturally follow.

Right now we find ourselves stuck in the middle. Innovators are not waiting for higher education to fix itself. Rather, they are jumping into the market head first. But because of the realities of the higher ed market’s poor information and incentives, they are facing roadblocks from a skeptical public who worry about the quality of online learning, even when such skepticism is unfounded. The problem, of course, is that the public is still using institutional prestige as a proxy for educational quality. Because the online learning community cannot hope to compete successfully on reputation with the established brick and mortar intuitions, it has instead focused its attention on student populations that have historically been underserved (namely, working adults). This is an understandable strategy, and provides value to a new segment of Americans, but it has limited the online sector’s potential.

The next step for educational innovators is to face the traditional sector head-on. The only way to compete successfully will be for them to measure and report the actual learning gains of their students. Ironically, it seems that innovators may end up driving the changes in information and incentives, rather than following them.

Once new institutions figure out how to measure and articulate the true value proposition of student learning to the public, they will be able to compete directly with the traditional Ivory Towers. When that happens, they will be true disruptors, and students will benefit.


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