Last week, I hosted an AshokaU Twitter chat on disruptive innovation in higher education (#SocEntChat). As questions streamed in, I reflected on how much the conversation around education has changed in the last several years—and how far we have to go.

More and more people seem to understand what a disruptive innovation is—and often more importantly, what it is not. I started the dialogue there by answering the question of what is disruptive when it comes to higher education. The answer? There are a variety of entities utilizing online learning to launch disruptive innovations in higher education—entities that make education more convenient, accessible, and lower-cost. To launch a disruptive innovation, you need both a technology enabler and a business model innovation, and online learning seems to have provided many entities with an enabler to pioneer new ways of educating students.

There are many interesting disruptive innovations emerging that are powered by online learning. The first wave of disruptors included online universities such as the University of Phoenix and Western Governor’s University. The newer ones include Fidelis Education, UniversityNow, and Udemy.

Some people on the chat wondered whether the various silos in higher education made it harder to innovate and solve complicated problems. The answer is likely yes—at least when it comes to certain kinds of innovation—but this problem is not unique to higher education. As any industry becomes more modular, problem-solving expertise fractures across many different groups. No one group possesses all of the expertise needed to reinvent a sector. Entities therefore have to re-integrate the industry—that is, they need to wrap their hands around all of the steps that affect the problem—so that they can forcibly reorganize ways of doing things in novel ways, and help customers and users accomplish the jobs they have to do.

One of my favorite stories that speaks to this need emerged from Brazil. According to Ted Simpson, president of the Higher Education User Group, the Brazilian government asked all of its universities to expand to educate the country’s rapidly growing middle class. Anhanguera Educacional S.A., a Brazilian university, decided that to do its part, it needed to double its capacity. To do so, the university decided it needed to turn to online learning to reach nonlocal students, but the broadband infrastructure in the country just wasn’t good enough to deliver a robust online learning experience. So what did it do? It acquired a company that works with satellite broadcasting technology—thereby acquiring a crucial lever in delivering education—so that it could allow people to access the education in Sao Paolo all the way from remote class sites in the Amazon.

Several questions during the chat focused on the quality of disruptive innovations and how they might improve to solve the social problems that people on the chat hoped they would solve. Talking about quality is always tricky because the definition of quality is relative to the job an individual needs to do (for more on this, read “Rethinking Student Motivation”). It’s not an absolute.

That said, my take is that we need many types of improvements and support in online learning. Although the social sector often tends to focus on the strictly academic learning pieces, we might be surprised to find that the biggest needs will be in the areas of social experiences, mentorship, and human support. As one person on the chat pointed out, teaching and learning aren’t necessarily a student’s job—meaning that sometimes a student’s job is to join a network of people, connect with employers, or have a fun social experience.

Of course, I also think we’re starting to see game-changing innovations emerge in the learning aspects of online education, as more and more companies experiment with adaptive learning and gaming technology.

Finally, a few strands of the conversation focused on what will happen to existing institutions as the disruptions grow. The answer is, of course, it depends. I suspect that many institutions will cease to exist as independent entities in coming years. But I think some will drive the disruptive innovations themselves. Ultimately, as incumbents in the space, universities have many resources at their disposal that they can use to do this. If they can take their resources and brands and drive them effectively into new models (for example, as MIT has done with MITx), then things will get really interesting—and the sky is the limit.

Disruptive innovation is heating up in higher education at the moment, and as a result, we should see some breathtaking changes across the world over the next 10 years.

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