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Disruptions in higher education shape the classroom of the future

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DR. Clayton Christensen, Harvard School of Business professor and author of The Innovative University, defines a disruptive innovation as “a product or service that may not be the highest quality, but which rattles the status quo by succeeding in its simplicity, convenience, accessibility, or affordability. It targets a job that needs to be done, providing just good enough performance as to appeal to an underserved or even non-existent consumer in the current marketplace.”

Online learning emerged as a disruptive innovation when access to higher education became a driving need for a growing population of adult learners who primarily saw education as a way to advance their careers.


Early efforts to develop online courses were limited by technology and comparatively slow Internet speed. Laptops and notebook computers allowed more mobility, but were not in the same league as today’s mobile devices for learning delivery. Many of the early online courses were simply adaptations of existing curriculum courses opened up to a larger audience and offering increased convenience and flexibility. It became no longer necessary to take a break from work to attend classroom-based lectures.

Today, online education has become widely accepted and the growth of online student enrollment in the past 10 years has greatly outpaced the rate of growth of student enrollment in higher education overall. Many online programmes are highly sophisticated, incorporating multimedia and other technologies including social media and cloud-based computing, opening up new opportunities and connecting students around the world.

The impact of these sustaining innovations is also seen in student learning outcomes, with online and blended programmes showing as good or better student outcomes as compared with traditional face-to-face experiences, an observation supported by a U.S. Department of Education study titled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (September 2010).

Flexibility and convenience still remain tangible benefits, but the ability to provide learning experiences that appeal to multiple styles of learning and the opportunity to connect with peers and faculty around the world are added benefits of online education.

So what’s causing this increase in growth? It is clear from rising enrollments that demand for online higher education continues to grow as the career landscape becomes increasingly competitive. Professionals see a real need to expand their skills or develop the relevant qualifications to enter a new career.

Online students today are typically a mix of older adult learners, working professionals, and parents ages 25–64, in addition to the “traditional” undergraduate student, according to the U.S. National Centre for Education Statistics, which collects and analyzes data related to education in the United States and other nations.

Since physical location is no longer a barrier to education, we are seeing an increase in international students as well as more “non-traditional” students who are returning to school mid-career or who are continuing their education after getting their undergraduate degree later in life. Students are able to select the best programs and courses for their needs from anywhere in the world.

The trend toward the global classroom and online learning is likely to accelerate as changes occur in both online and traditional approaches to learning with how content is delivered, learned, and credentialed. However, regardless of what education providers and the industry think, it will be the students who drive adoption and acceptance of future developments in online learning because it meets their needs.

More than 40 years ago, the founders of my institution Walden University, Bernie and Rita Turner – who were teachers themselves – were inspired by the concept of a distance-learning university designed around and for the student. They recognized that many adult learners interested in pursuing their doctoral education were unable to find programs accepting of them if they could not commit to a traditional full-time schedule.

As the Turners described it, they wanted to “throw a pebble in the pond” in order to reach a wider stream of people who were juggling family and work obligations and to create a place of learning where the professional experience and contributions of the adult learner were not only welcomed but embraced.

Greatest impact

Their “disruption” and vision transformed Walden into what it is today: a global online institution of more than 50,000 students making an impact in their communities and professions.   We can and should see disruption as an opportunity to redefine and re-envision higher education. In the end, the audience facing the greatest impact from these disruptors will be the students. They will have an abundance of choices: in how they learn, where they learn, and how their learning is measured. They will find educational models that fit their personal learning needs and styles, contributing to even more effective learning. The change will be welcomed, especially by students.

Dr. Cynthia G. Baum, president of Walden University, is committed to finding new ways to fulfill Walden’s social change mission and to support student success. Dr. Baum assumed her position after serving as vice president of the College of Health Sciences and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and then as executive vice president of Walden. She has more than 25 years of experience in higher education as a faculty member, academic leader, and administrator.

Dr. Cynthia G. Baum is President, Walden University

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