Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Is Online Learning a Disruptive Innovation? It Isn't the Technology per Se, but the New Thinking It Inspires, That Can Be Disruptive

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Is Online Learning a Disruptive Innovation? It Isn't the Technology per Se, but the New Thinking It Inspires, That Can Be Disruptive

Article excerpt

In their desire to plan for the future, planners must assess the role of both internal and external influences on the institution. What then should we make of the idea that technology is disruptive? This perception fuels the views of Barone and Hagner (2001), who claimed that technology would "transform" higher education; Duderstadt (2000), who stressed that technologies would drive changes in higher education; and Gonick, who saw in the Internet a "new kind of force" and "a change agent" that would produce a "very different kind of university" (Gonick 2009, [paragraph]4-[paragraph]5, [paragraph]9). This language is consistent and powerful, but the question remains: Should planners plan for the disruption of higher education? Have the promoters of the "technology as disruptor" idea overplayed their hands or is transformation around the corner?

Three problems plague language equating technology with transformation. First, such language is oversimplified and ignores other forces at work such as the human element. Second, it lacks precision. Third, it lacks a theory that can help explain disruption and evaluate whether it has occurred. To address the first problem, this analysis incorporates alternative forces that contribute to or modify the influence of change agents. To address the second problem, this article focuses on online learning. To address the third problem, this analysis draws heavily on the work of Christensen (1997, 2000), whose concept of "disruptive technology" was first applied to technologies in business. So the charge for this effort is to evaluate whether online learning is a disruptive technology in higher education, as defined by Christensen (1997).

Review of Literature

The theories of Rogers (1995) and Christensen (1997) may be helpful in this analysis. Rogers' diffusion theory has been a popular tool for studying innovation that has been applied to online learning by Armstrong (2000), Hiltz and Turoff (2005), and Liao (2005). These authors considered online learning to be the perfect example of a disruptive innovation, one that would shake the basic assumptions and foundations of higher education and generate the transformation writers such as Barone and Duderstadt predicted.

According to Rogers (1995), an innovation has five characteristics. First, it has relative advantage, which is the extent to which the innovation is "better than the idea it supersedes" (p. 15). While some faculty members may have intuited the relative advantage of online learning, not all have by any means. Second, it has compatibility, or the extent to which it is "consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters" (p. 15). Perhaps online learning is less compatible with the existing values of faculty, who have expressed distress at losing the personal interaction with and knowledge of students that they value. Third, it has complexity, defined as the extent to which it is "perceived as difficult to understand" (p. 16), so that simpler innovations are quicker to diffuse and more complex ones are slower. Online learning is seen as more complex and difficult. Fourth, it has trialability, the extent to which it "may be experimented with on a limited basis" (p. 16), perhaps on an installment plan. Fifth, it has observability, the extent to which the "results of an innovation are visible to others" (p. 16). To what extent does online learning possess these characteristics?

Let us now turn to the work of Christensen (1997, 2000) and his concept of disruptive innovations, which are technological innovations, products, services, processes, or concepts that disrupt the status quo. As developed by Christensen (1997, 2000) and Christensen and Raynor (2003) to apply to businesses, the disruptive innovation may not be perceived initially as such. In its early stages, the innovation may actually underperform existing technologies or not satisfy customers in the mainstream market. …

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