Online, A Disruptive Force?

Levin, David_005E-textbooks. Hybrid and online courses. Using learner analytics to assess experiments that involve academic technology. The future of SmartSite.

These are a few of the areas that David Levin intends to discuss, and address, as director of Academic Technology Services for Information and Educational Technology. Below, you’ll find an excerpt from an interview with Levin. You can also read the full text.

You have said you also want to look at strategy for online learning.

Yes. Over the next couple of years, we should think about the strategy, vision, and where we want to go as a university with online learning.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard faculty member who wrote the book The Innovators’ Dilemma, has developed a theory of disruptive innovation. In many industries, as things change, it looks like good economic sense for a leader to continue what they’re doing, and to make a little bit more profit on their current line of business.

Then along comes some other company that says, ‘Well, I can tweak this a little bit more and sell something at much lower cost to a much larger group, and make a whole lot of money, and maybe put the other company out of business.’

A common example is American auto manufacturers of the 1980s. They were building SUVs and the like. They made more profit by building fancier, bigger SUVs. Along comes Toyota, which says, ‘Forget about the big SUV, I’m going to build the inexpensive car.’ Toyota almost put the big U.S. manufacturers out of business, until the U.S. manufacturers got the idea and changed things.

It seemed to work just fine, continuing your model of how you produced your goods, but then somebody innovates and changes the landscape, and disrupts the whole situation.

Has education reached a similar moment?

Christensen and others have suggested that online education might be similar. I’m not going to advocate that I agree with this, but the idea that online education might be a disruptive force in higher education is very interesting.

And if it is?

Right now, the cost of higher education is rising higher than the cost of health care. That’s leading to financial problems with higher education; it’s leading us within the public sector to require more private funding. Tuition goes up. There are all the financial problems.

Some groups might come along that can provide education with a much cheaper, different model. Will that disrupt us?

When this theory first came out, the models of who might disrupt higher education were for-profit firms, like University of Phoenix. They offered education in a very different model. They maybe took some market share from higher education. There were questions about credibility, and all kinds of things. Now companies like Coursera are offering these massive courses from the same instructors who teach at our elite institutions—this isn’t the model of a for-profit, questionable-quality institution. It’s the model of these same instructors, teaching in a different mode.

So, is online education going to disrupt higher education? First of all, by disruptive, I don’t mean it will mean the end of great universities. But this new model seems to offer a new way of offering possibly high-quality education.

Online learning is an area of growth, and most institutions are beginning to look at what the future is for them. I think we need to do that, and with our eyes open.

I imagine you welcome faculty who want to talk with you about all this?


What’s the best way for them to contact you?

Send me an email ( or call me (530-752-2133). Even better, as much as I live in the virtual world, I want to get together and talk with you. So, set up an appointment. Drop by.

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