Yesterday, I was casually reading through my Twitter feed (which largely consists of publishers who link to their articles…#noshame) and I came across this interesting piece titled “Internet Opens Education” from the Michigan Daily. This article summarizes how thirty-three top universities across the nation are beginning to open their courses to anyone in the world with Internet connection for free. This is an amazing accomplishment considering the rising costs of college tuition that excludes students who cannot afford a degree. However, the first obvious critique of this is what will it do for those who still pay thousands of dollars to physically attend classes here? Is there a difference between degrees earned through going to class and degrees earned taking virtual classes online? Can one even get a degree from a top university without leaving their house? I don’t know the answer to these questions.
What really sparked my interest about this piece was in relation to something I read over the summer in the New Yorker. The article (unfortunately not fully available online) was a biography about Clayton Christensen, who wrote the influential book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” If you are unfamiliar with this book and you do a quick search, you’ll find that it was written in 1997 and still generates dialogue today with emerging markets as technology advances by the hour (just peek at the hits it gets in the news section). Clayton Christensen is renowned for coining the trend “disruptive technology,” or as it is sometimes called “disruptive innovation.” In short, disruptive innovation happens when a company cannot and does not allocate money and resources to an aspect of innovation that seems insignificant. Thus, a start-up firm jumps on that innovation, usually rather haphazardly (which keeps the big firm at bay and unconcerned), until that small firm essentially steals the market from the bigger firm through unexpected ways of developing that new technology to exceed the expectations of the previous technology.
If this sounds too technical of a summary, just think of these popular disruptive technologies: Netflix took over Blockbuster/Hollywood Video/etc, Amazon took over Borders, MP3s essentially wiped out CDs, and Wikipedia has replaced traditional encyclopedias (here’s a longer list).
So why do we care? Netflix is so much better than having to go to your local video store only to find out the movie you want to see is all checked out, right? One of the biggest concerns associated with these disruptive technologies is the fate of the technology it is replacing. If we think about universities offering online courses in the same way that bookstores started selling books online, could it be that universities will not need to, or cannot afford to, have physical campuses in the future? I also read an article over the summer about this direct comparison of the publishing industry and establishments of higher education in the Chronicle, which notes that one of the effects of the accessibility of this online education opportunity is that it in some ways wipes out other programs that are too similar; aka competition is essentially eliminated. Do the benefits of universally accessible online education outweigh the consequences of forever changing the landscape of higher-education establishments? I’m really curious what you guys think of the future of higher education and how this business trend could affect it, especially considering that the effects are taking shape way sooner than our distant concept of the future.
By: Rachel Blanzy
(Photo by Mohammed Alnaser under a Creative Commons License)