Are Universities Afraid of Online Learning?

by Staff Writers

On May 17, 2012, Peter Klein, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote that, "Mainline universities loudly proclaim their love of online learning — and pedagogical innovation more generally — while doing everything possible to retard it. The strategy has been to make a few easy, low-cost, conservative moves that preserve the status quo, such as putting some existing courses online, while trying to suppress the innovative outsiders like Phoenix, TED, Kahn Academy, etc. It's a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls sustaining innovation — incremental changes that keep the existing market structure intact. The last thing the higher-ed establishment wants is disruptive innovation that challenges its dominant incumbent position" (

According to the article, the minor innovations we see in online learning are an example of "sustained innovation," meaning small changes that do very little to change the actual structure of the market. He further states that any real innovation of the system must come from outside sources such as the Khan Academy, rather than from insiders such as edX, which was recently announced by Harvard and MIT. Is higher education really so protective of its turf that it is actively working to maintain the status quo? Could our colleges and universities really be afraid of innovation while simultaneously fulfilling their mission as one of our society's primary sources of innovation? Is there a fatal flaw in higher education that is hindering true educational growth?

The Problem with edX,
In reference to the announcement of Harvard and MIT's collaborative online learning platform, edX, I wrote, "With the ambitious goal of reaching 1 billion learners, it is going to be extremely challenging for edX to provide an interactive experience for all of them. The key to an effort like this, and my main criticism of the efforts that have come before it, is that mass-produced education cannot, by definition, teach innovation" (Marquis, 9 May, 2012).

As noted by Klein, there is an underlying propensity for mainline institutions to take the easiest path to creating online offerings. While an initiative like edX seems to be highly innovative, it really lacks true potential to break with the usual model of classroom learning stripped down ported to the Internet. I have always believed that this was a limitation of the medium, as it is extremely challenging to teach students to be creative innovators online. The question that the Klein article has raised however is the possibility that this lack of paradigm changing advances may in fact be symptomatic of an institution that is resisting major change, rather than the cause.

Hitting the Innovation Barrier
Barring a major conspiracy, the lack of true innovation in online learning raises the question of whether there are financial or technological barriers that prevent the sort of rich interaction and fostering of creative thinking skills that are needed for truly new online learning. In an era of steep budget cuts in higher education, there are monetary reasons for many universities to be reluctant to jump fully into innovative online learning, despite its potential to ultimately become a profitable endeavor ( Additionally, there are some issues with our technology infrastructure and broadband penetration (Marquis, 5 June, 2012) that also hinder innovation. However, advanced communication technologies such as video conferencing, portable computing, and collaborative tools certainly have the potential to move online learning beyond the status quo.

Rather than a conspiracy-based, financial, or technological barrier to true innovation, a fourth option exists. Perhaps higher education is suffering from a philosophical innovation obstruction which may be the cause of the sustaining innovation rather than a symptom of it. Since the industrial revolution, education has been based on a factory model where the emphasis has been on producing as many graduates as possible, as efficiently as possible, rather than on catering to individual needs or ensuring that people learn as much as possible. This philosophy, more than any sinister conspiracy to uphold the status quo, is more likely than not the root cause of the lack of innovation in online higher education.

Considering the decentralized nature of the university system and even the fairly democratic decision making process at most institutions, it is hard to imagine that the coordination even exists for a conspiracy on the scale that Klein suggests to be possible.

What Higher Education Could Be
There is no ready answer to the question of whether higher education is afraid of online learning as a disruptive force or not. Short of an unforeseen whistle blower, evidence of a conspiracy for maintaining the status quo in higher education through efforts such as edX and MITx is unlikely to come to light. Regardless of the root cause, there is still a marked lack of true innovation in higher education. This leads naturally to a consideration of what higher education could be if the roadblocks to true innovation were removed. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Self-paced: Through advanced technologies, education at all levels for all learners could be self-paced, allowing students to progress through the system at the best pace for them.
  • Mastery-based: Sufficient advances would allow for every learner to leverage online learning technology to reach mastery of every subject they study.
  • Individualized: Innovation in both technology and our thinking about education would allow every student to craft their own educational experience which blends traditional coursework with independent DIY-style learning, and real world experiences.
  • Learning-style independent: Advances in semantic technologies and big data could allow students to access learning materials and experiences specifically catered to their individual learning styles.

One of the amazing things about innovation is that it spawns more and greater creative ways of doing things. There is really no telling what online learning could be like if the barriers holding it back can be broken down. In actuality it might prove to be far more than we can imagine, or it might turn out to be a passing fad that would eventually fade away regardless of whether it is obstructed or not. The smart money is on the former though.

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