‘College for $99 a Month’ – A Step in the Right Direction

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

Kevin Carey, in “College for $99 a Month,” refers to Christensen and Horn’s application of the concept of “disruptive innovation” in education, in which they predict that online education will someday acquire the necessary quality to upend the existing system. Is StraighterLine such an innovation? Perhaps not yet, but a closer look at Christensen and Horn coupled with the points in Carey’s article show why it is definitely a step in that direction.

One of the key points that Christensen and Horn make in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns is that the organization that relies on incumbent technology for its product will struggle to implement the disruptive innovation itself, if it can do it at all. Doing so will require it to devote resources to create an, at first, inferior product to compete against itself in the same market place. A company that competes against itself is torn apart. Carey provides ample evidence of this dynamic at work in the StraighterLine experience with Fort Hayes.

Colleges have indeed implemented online education courses, but for the most part they do so in a way that will not allow true competition. Again, Carey gives ample illustrations of how colleges set rules on online education that limit competition. It is, however, the very structure of colleges that prevents them from creating a truly disruptive innovation in online education. Once again, Christensen and Horn show why.

disrupting_classThey give the example of DEC, a giant in the last era of computing. It defined its corporate structure around the basic design of its very successful computer, creating discrete departments that were assigned the task of upgrading the specific component to which they were assigned. While this meant that DEC could continue to improve that basic design, it also meant that it would be forever locked into that basic design, and new systems built on new interrelationships of parts eventually blew them away. Similarly, colleges and universities that work within existing structures will never create a truly innovative online program.

When a typical college undertakes an online education program, it does so within its existing department structure. This means that individual professors, adhering to the principle of academic freedom, create online versions of their classroom experiences. College teaching is one of the few professions in which practitioners are not required to have any training in their profession, and Carey clearly points out that poor quality college classes and huge lecture halls are all too common. So an online program begins with a professor wondering how to take what is too often a very poor face-to-face instructional model and replicate it in an online setting.

Because the school cannot afford to invest vast sums into a technology that will ultimately compete against itself, the professor is given minimal training in how to use a Course Management System like BlackBoard. The professor has little spare time in which to develop the course, and an inordinate amount of time taken in its creation merely takes away from the amount of money ultimately earned for teaching the course. There is thus no incentive to learn how to use the resources creatively.


Colleges and universities that work within existing structures will never create a truly innovative online program.


Let’s compare that with an organization that is working outside the existing educational system. At the K-12 level, several, including some cited by Christensen and Horn, are developing high quality online courses. They hire educational theorists who understand how students learn. They hire technology teams to create interactive and engaging multimedia to teach critical concepts. They have project directors who see the whole project through to its conclusion, a process which may take most of a year. They create careful formative and summative assessment programs rarely seen in colleges. A single course costs many tens of thousands of dollars to create.

Of course, such a process would be cost prohibitive within the normal college setting. On the other hand, if such a high quality course is marketed through colleges to students, thus distributing the cost over a wide base, students across the country could have access to an outstanding education at a reasonable cost from any place at any time. Contrary to the beliefs of many, this will not eliminate the need for a quality instructor, for the best of such courses will employ activities that demand the meaningful intervention of a skilled educator. To fill that role, the teaching professor will need to learn to facilitate constructivist, project driven instruction instead of broadcasting facts to the multitudes, but that is a change that should be made anyway.

The existence of programs like StraighterLine show that such innovations are on their way. Predictably, colleges and universities will fight them tooth and nail so that they may maintain their quite profitable status quo, but the change will eventually come.

2 Responses

  1. Your description of the what goes on within higher education with CMS software is spot on. I have a role where I help academic incorporate blackboard into their courses. Generally speaking, much of the negative experiences I have are where bad teaching is involved. The variety is frightening. Often it’s not just bad it’s lazy. Lazy in the sense that no thought has gone into the design and delivery of the course. And how can you incorporate learning technologies into your pedagogical design if there isn’t one! Things go well where the opposite exists.

  2. yes-no coming to class.

    1. Admit

    2. No Admit

    Real lectures: 100-200 can see lecture

    Digital lectures 500-1000 million can see lecture.


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