Sign In

Communications of the ACM


Disrupting and Transforming the -University

Disrupting and Transforming the University, illustrative photo

Are universities about to be disrupted the way Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster, all recently in bankruptcy, were disrupted? Blended courses, online learning, and MOOCs are moving at light speed compared to the typical university. This Viewpoint will highlight the opportunities and threats from technology and recommend that higher education institutions morph their business models in response to these challenges. Examples of the transformation in higher education include:

  • The Minerva Project proposes to create a top-tier for-profit research university. Students live together on different campuses around the world and top professors stream online classes to student seminars (New York Times, 4/21/2013).
  • Generation Rwanda is starting an entirely massive open online course (MOOC) university with tuition under $1,500 a year. It plans a 400-person university in Rwanda with MOOCs providing the content and teaching fellows handling discussions. Southern New Hampshire University will test and certify associates degrees. Currently 1% of Rwanda's population has a college degree (Technology Review, 3/15/2013).
  • Georgia Tech announced a professional online Master of Science degree in computer science earned through MOOCs in conjunction with Udacity and AT&T. The program estimates tuition at $6,600 for the three years of course work with 4,500 centers for proctoring examinations. There are recent reports that the school has received twice the expected number of applications for the program (Wall Street Journal, 10/29/2013).

While these proposals may or may not be successful, technology is enabling many new ideas for higher education. This Viewpoint describes the promises (and threats) of innovations like these based on my experience teaching along with my research on disruptive technologies.2,5


R Oldehoeft

Quite a cheerleading article for MOOCs, which have almost universally failed so far in getting even 10% of enrollees to finish a single course. The author has an investment in this, of course.

Undergraduate students, not yet adults, learn a great deal by interacting with their classroom peers, from the academic environment (sometimes way different than whence they came), and even the social peer environments around them (for better or worse). It's a hurry-up step to beginning to grow up.

The author's alternative is for unformed kids, in their jammies, to sit at computers and learn all that they might otherwise on campus. What a naive idea.

There is a better case to be made in post-graduate programs, maybe MS, maybe certificate, maybe just a specialized noodle on how to make a framisch from a gramlich. Just don't disregard the undergraduate experience, which also includes the core curricula that keep the nerds from being even more so.

Henry Lucas

Mr. or Ms. Oldehoeft

Thank you for your comments. It is difficult to provide a lot of evidence or compelling arguments in a short article. I am currently working on a book about technologically-enhanced teaching and learning. I agree completely with you that the best experience is for an undergraduate to attend a four-year college and live on campus. Unfortunately, the majority of American college students do not have this luxury. What if the option is to spend less time on campus or not attend college at all?

I do not advocate a fully online undergraduate degree unless it is one's only hope of attending college. I do think that a few online courses might help a student reduce some of the cost of college by living at home for a few semesters, getting a part-time job, and taking online courses.

I agree with you about graduate education as being extremely promising for online education. In our new online MBA program we have students from across the U.S. who are not able to attend a program at any institution largely due to job or family issues. The program has two three-day residency periods at the beginning and end of their classes, and students meet weekly in a synchronous online session with course instructors.

I am very enthusiastic about blended courses in which students study lecture material asynchronously that the instructor has prepared in advance. A blended course meets physically with all students -- in my teaching the physical classes have been about 75% as long as a traditional course meeting to offset the time students spend watching video lectures. The research on recall from traditional lectures is pretty discouraging. By including short quizzes in the videos, and with students having the opportunity to replay material they did not understand, we hope that asynchronous material will be more effective than the lecture. My physical classes in blended courses have been more interactive and I hope more stimulating to students. The idea here is to move from passive learning (lecture) to more active learning on the part of the student (discussion in class).

I am unconcerned by drop out rates with MOOCs. The idea is that participants take what interests them -- they are not for credit and they are free unless you pay for a certificate track. As an experiment, the second time my MOOC ran on Coursera I used it as the core of an MBA two-credit elective. Sixteen students from three of our campuses registered for the course. I supplemented the MOOC with more readings and written assignments, and we met weekly in a synchronous video class using Adobe Connect. Sixteen students completed the course and received credit for it.

I think we are moving toward a new paradigm for teaching and learning, one which I hope will be better than current practice. Time will tell.


Displaying all 2 comments

Log in to Read the Full Article

Sign In

Sign in using your ACM Web Account username and password to access premium content if you are an ACM member, Communications subscriber or Digital Library subscriber.

Need Access?

Please select one of the options below for access to premium content and features.

Create a Web Account

If you are already an ACM member, Communications subscriber, or Digital Library subscriber, please set up a web account to access premium content on this site.

Join the ACM

Become a member to take full advantage of ACM's outstanding computing information resources, networking opportunities, and other benefits.

Subscribe to Communications of the ACM Magazine

Get full access to 50+ years of CACM content and receive the print version of the magazine monthly.

Purchase the Article

Non-members can purchase this article or a copy of the magazine in which it appears.