Higher Education and Disruptive Innovation: The Example of MOOC Provider Partnerships with Higher Education Institutions

Disruptive innovation is looming in higher education. Well known broadly, the costs for higher education keep increasingly while the need for a credential to obtain a job does as well. Learners need and want more affordable options. While the traditional four-year Bachelor’s degree may work for many, other options can meet the needs of the non-traditional learner. One such example can be found in massive open online courses (MOOCs.)  MOOC providers and their partnerships with universities provides an example of disruptive innovation within higher education that can meet the needs of the non-traditional learner.


Changes within the higher education landscape can be linked to disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation makes a product cheaper and more accessible to customers that previously could not afford the more expensive version (Christensen et al. 2). Two key elements of disruptive innovation relevant to higher education include technology enablers and business model innovation (Christensen et al. 2-3). The technology enabler of online learning permits higher education to reach a previously untapped customer base (Christensen et al. 2-3). The second element of innovation to the higher education business model will allow online education to be leveraged in the realms of teaching and learning as opposed to research with the traditional universities dominate (Christensen et al. 3). The combination of technology with an appropriate business model to leverage online education’s strengths can allow higher education institutions to reach more learners and increase access to education.


The concept of disruptive innovation within higher education is not new. Looking back on the history of distance learning, instances of innovation show the efforts within the higher education industry to leverage new technologies to provide access to a broader student base. Beth Dumbauld’s “A Brief History of Online Learning [Infographic]” provides the following instances in which the leveraging of a technology occurred in the distance learning arena:


  • 1922: Penn State leverages the radio to offer courses. By 1925, over two hundred higher education institutions obtained radio broadcasting licenses.
  • 1965: The University of Wisconsin leverages the telephone for a program offering.
  • 1968: Stanford University leverages the television to provide education for part-time engineering students.
  • 1994: CALCampus leverages the internet to provide the first entirely online curriculum.
  • 2012: Two million students solely participate in online courses. By this time 96% of traditional higher education institutions offer online courses.


The history of distance learning shows that the occurrence of innovation efforts are neither rare nor recent. Within the field of higher education, the rise of online learning provides the opportunity to disrupt the sector with the proper leveraging of the technology.


The partnership between MOOC providers and higher education institutions provides a current, evolving example of disruptive innovation within the sector. MOOCs have the potential to influence higher education through providing open education to many both at a large scale and cheaply (Hilmi 49). MOOCs utilize a financial model in which many learners provide small fees to earn credentials as opposed to traditional higher education institutions which impose exorbitant tuition costs upon a small number of students (Hilmi 50). MOOCs represent the potential for disruptive innovation because they can reach a large customer base at a lower price point. MOOCs themselves use online learning in a more open manner than traditional online courses with smaller enrollment capacities. The financial model of the MOOC shows innovation in the business model for education in which the substantially reduced feeds allows more learners to access the credentials.


One way that higher education institutions can leverage this potential disruptive innovation to their advantage is through partnerships with MOOC providers. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently announced its partnership with edX to provide an online Master’s in Analytics for under $10,000 (Straumsheim). For the on-campus version of this program, the cost is $36,000 and $49,000 for Georgia residents and out-of-state students respectively (Straumsheim). The on-campus program receives roughly 1,000 applicants per year of which the institution can only take 70 (Straumsheim). By offering an online graduate degree at a much cheaper price point through partnership with edX, Georgia Tech has the possibility of capturing all these “lost” applicants in addition to any students who did not apply due to the inability to attend a program on campus (Straumsheim). By harnessing the technology of online learning and adapting their business model to the disruptive innovation, Georgia Tech may be able to reach more learners who need to achieve the credential at the cheaper price in order to advance their career. While learning and teaching through MOOCs has not been perfected yet, further disruptive innovation within the higher education sector may occur when that evolution to a more optimized state has been reached.


Works Cited:

Christensen, Clayton, et al. “Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver     Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education.” Center for American Progress and Innosight Institute, Feb. 2011, cdn.americanprogress.org/wp- content/uploads/issues/2011/02/pdf/disrupting_college_execsumm.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.


Dumbauld, Beth. “A Brief History of Online Learning [Infographic].” StraighterLine Blog, 11 July   2014, www.straighterline.com/blog/brief-history-online-learning-infographic/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.


Hilmi, Mohd Faiz. “Disruptive Innovation in Education: Open Learning, Online Learning, MOOCs and What Next?” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, vol. 5, no. 10, Oct. 2016, pp. 49-53, www.ijhssi.org/papers/v5(10)/version-3/H5103049053.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.


Straumsheim, Carl. “Georgia Tech Launches Second Low-Cost Online Master’s Degree Program.” Inside Higher Ed, 12 Jan. 2017, www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/12/georgia-tech-launches-second-low-cost-online-masters-degree-program?width=775&height=500&iframe=true. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017



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