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Harvard Professor Encourages Colleagues to Get On-board with Online Education

Oct 25, 2011

In a September 2011 editorial in 'The Atlantic,' Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen and Brigham Young University - Idaho advancement guru Henry Eyring champion the growing movement of online college education. Why is it inevitable, and why should educators embrace it?

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By Eric Garneau

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The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Though as a field online education has grown significantly in the last decade, it's still not at a point where it's reached major acceptance among the world of academics. The most recent data, from a 2010 Sloan Consortium report, notes that over 5.5 million students are enrolled in at least one course online; that's almost 30% of the U.S. student population overall. Yet many educators have been slow to adapt to digital learning.

In their Atlantic editorial (entitled 'Why You Should Root for College to Go Online'), Christensen and Eyring single out an event that they believe will be 'disruptive' to the world of higher education, one which will turn more attention towards online education than ever before. That event: the Apollo Group's purchase of Carnegie Learning, an intelligent computerized math tutorial system in use in over 3,000 schools around the country. That's notable because Apollo Group owns the University of Phoenix, one of the premiere online - not to mention for-profit - institutions in the U.S.

Christensen and Eyring believe that Apollo's acquisition of the popular software will cultivate a kind of brand loyalty to the University of Phoenix in students. As a bonus, students who use Carnegie's software now are perhaps more primed than their peers to embrace online education in the first place. As Phoenix grows its share of the student market, other, more traditional institutions will be left scrambling to recover their student body. There's that 'disruption' Christensen and Eyring cited.

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The For-Profit Revolution?

Given all the controversy surrounding for-profit schools, it may seem strange to suggest that they're actually pushing the world of higher education forward. But according to a September 2011 report in Campus Technology, when it comes to the digital world, that's exactly what they're doing. By their very nature as businesses, for-profit schools have to be responsive to the needs of their student bodies, which tend to be more diverse (and busy) than the typical college student set. Because of that, many for-profits have been more open to adopting helpful technology than their not-for-profit, brick-and-mortar brothers.

The numbers don't lie: Campus Technology reports that while many not-for-profits spend less than three percent of their operating budget on technological initiatives, for-profits can spend over ten. For-profits also tend to be quicker at implementing new technology in the first place, as well as abandoning those technologies that don't seem to be working. It's primarily that turnaround speed that makes for-profit schools a leader in the field of technology; such movement's wont to be seen as hasty in more traditional universities.

Resistance is Futile

That last point bears repeating, and indeed becomes Christensen and Eyring's fundamental argument for such innovation being 'disruptive.' In their words, 'the much greater challenge for traditional universities and colleges is changing their teaching traditions.' Campus Technology backs up that assertion: 'Some traditional faculty, who have not been exposed to technology, are afraid.' The guard may be changing, but that doesn't mean that academics rooted in tradition won't attempt to hold on dearly to what they know.

In actuality, Christensen and Eyring argue, educators need to do the opposite. 'Full-time faculty members must not only assent to the inclusion of online learning in the curriculum, they should lead it.' A swell of support from university staff could stave off any coming disruption brought about by online teaching technology. There's no better way to control how you deal with innovation than by embracing it early and directly. As Christensen and Eyring suggest, mid-level not-for-profit colleges and universities will be forced to adapt to online education sooner or later… better for them to start working on it now, before it's too late.

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