Online learning: Wave of the future or demise of the academy?

Original article by Sara Lenz for Deseret News

All institutions may have to seriously look at incorporating online education and learning — and soon, according to a new higher education book released late last month and written by a Harvard business professor and BYU-Idaho administrator.

“One thing we’ve got to come to grips with is the power of online technology and the opportunity to enhance the way we teach,” wrote Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in July. “It’s not just about saving money by employing low-paid online instructors and freeing up classroom space. Undergraduate students who prepare for face-to-face classes via online lectures, problem sets, and discussion boards can take Socratic discovery to levels like those of the best graduate business and law schools. This kind of hybrid learning holds the potential to create not only the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution in higher education, but also a learning renaissance. We can serve more students not just at lower cost but also at higher quality.”

This idea is played out throughout their book, “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.” They don’t say that all classes should be online but that all colleges should try to incorporate online learning to lower costs and to reach more students. Since the book’s release, reviewers and others who have read it have called their ideas everything from “enlightening” to “toxic.”

The book explains where colleges have come from and where they are heading.

It goes off the notion of a term Christensen coined many years ago, disruptive innovation, or an idea that improves a product or service in ways the market does not expect, mainly by offering it at a more affordable price and often to a different customer. This is what the two say online education is on the cusp of doing to higher education as the quality increases. And if institutions can’t keep their prices in check through innovation and specialization, more and more students may turn to online higher ed, they say.

“The authors suggest that to avoid the pitfalls of disruption and turn the scenario into a positive and productive one, universities must change their institutional ‘DNA,'” the book’s website states.

Traditionally, they say, most colleges look to Harvard as a model, trying to be everything to everyone. But Christensen and Eyring say only the top schools can sustain such a model, which has become more evident in the downturn economy. “The typical university is serving too many different types of students and offering them too many subjects of study,” Eyring and Christensen wrote in a preview about their book. “In addition to reducing its program offerings, the focused university will modularize its majors, allowing students to customize their education and graduate timely. The successful university will also embrace the opportunity to teach values, both formally and in faculty-student mentoring relationships.”

They give the example of BYU-Idaho and some different things the university has done to cut cost by not having faculty rank, not focusing on research, getting rid of the collegiate athletic program and offering classes year-round, and at the same time has embraced online learning as on option for students.

After reading the book, Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, called what BYU-Idaho is doing exemplary.

“It seemed to be an inspired conception of an institution that can fill an important role in American society,” Lewis said.

He was also quoted on the book’s website as saying, “The Innovative University offers fascinating new perspectives on very old questions. What defines a university’s identity? Are all universities cloned from the same ancestral stock? Are there still opportunities for diversity in American higher education, or is a single ideal to be approximated with greater or lesser fidelity? These questions resonate through the book’s narrative histories of an old university and a bold new one.”

And Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College, a private, top-ranked business college in Massachusetts, said there are enough examples in the book that every higher education institution should be able to find something of value that they can incorporate into their own college.

A former tenured professor wrote a review of the book on, calling it “enlightening” and saying that it discusses something of critical importance to higher education. The reviewer listed some of the things the book suggests universities can do to cut back on costs.

“Many universities of the future will operate all year, include more students, develop more focused curriculum, enhance their mentoring, establish more community, combine in-class/off-line classes, award three-year degrees, and lower operational costs. Many of these developments are already present in some of the universities described in the book, including one which one of authors (HJR) was associated with, BYU-Idaho. Other universities adopting a lower cost model are Indiana Wesleyan University, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Tennessee Technology Centers, Valencia Community College, Rio Salado College and Devry Institute. A recent report (Winning by Degrees) by McKinsey profiles the previously noted eight universities and their superior productivities.”

The authors gave five suggestions to higher education institutions in The Hechinger Report on how to deal with this innovative disrupter of online education along with cost, quality and reaching more students (see box).

“Universities will have to change quickly to survive the disruptive threats coming from every angle,” the authors wrote. “But through smart, focused and strategic innovation, they will not only survive but thrive — continuing to play their invaluable role for the benefit of all of society.”

Many have questioned how universities can make such a hard decision on what big programs to cut and which ones to keep around. Eyring tells the Higher Education Management that there needs to be “an ongoing, tense dialogue between administrators and faculty members. The Innovative University attempts to provide a framework for making that dialogue more productive. It highlights the environmental realities that require traditional colleges and universities to change, while emphasizing the things that need to stay the same.”

When asked by Forbes Magazine about whether colleges will actually do anything after hearing such a message, Eyring feels confident they can and will.

“The other reason to hope that universities can adapt is that they are staffed by uncommonly intelligent and socially minded people,” he said. “The resistance of universities to change resides more in the DNA of the institution than in the DNA of the faculty. When universities decide to reward innovation in curriculum and instruction in the same way that research and publication is currently rewarded, we’ll see remarkable changes.”

But others are afraid that academia is too rigid a model to change.

Some people question the book’s power, saying it discusses the history of BYU-Idaho and Harvard for too much of the book or that it doesn’t go in-depth enough about explaining how online education is of high or higher quality.

Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote last month that many in traditional academe might see some of the author’s ideas as “toxic.”

But he goes on to say that “if current economic trends continue, much of traditional academe is going to be forced to change.”

And the Boston Globe points out in a review of the book a study by Columbia University that suggests online learning is not the best model for students who need lower prices and flexibility, citing that college students enrolled in community colleges were more likely to drop out of a online course than a face-to-face one.

But institutions like Arizona State University have said they have already found much success and even better outcomes in some online classes. For instance, they have found their freshmen perform better in the introductory online math course than in the face-to-face one.

“There is a fear that having more classes online means we are going to give up on the traditional Socratic method of teaching,” Crow said. “People are forgetting: to be a successful, educated undergraduate today is different than it was 20 years ago — education is far from static. Our only hope of keeping up is to find new ways to teach more. How can we create a true 21st century, state-of-the-art learner except by coming up with every different modality available.”

Crow also has read Christensen and Eyring’s book, saying it shows universities ways to preserve what is important while advancing innovative ideas.

When describing the book’s core message to Higher Education Management, Eyring says “The book’s core message is that fundamental change is coming to higher education. We’re seeing the confluence of unsustainable cost increases in the traditional model and a disruptive technology, online learning, that makes it possible to serve many more students at high quality and affordable cost. The result will be greater innovation than we’ve seen in higher education in more than a century.”

Suggestions for higher ed innovation

1. Become No.1 in the “ranking” of your own students, faculty, alumni and other direct supporters

2. Focus on what you do best

3. Embrace online learning technology

4. Grow the student body

5. Put personal values back into higher education