A student view on the disruptiveness of online education

Within information systems we are interested in studying people, technology and organizations, and in improving businesses, processes and everyday life through technology. No small feat, but luckily we have our students to help us.

Within the basic level course IT & Management we discuss issues of relevance to future IT decision makers. In a recent lecture the topic was on sustaining versus disruptive technologies.

Sustaining technologies are understood as increment improvements to existing technologies, which do not fundamentally change the key attributes of the technology. The user receives essentially the same value as before, but more of it or of a better quality. The ever increasing megapixels in our smartphone cameras are an example of this.

Disruptive technologies, on the other hand, are innovations which bring a whole new set of value attributes to the user. Another characteristic is that the performance of the technology improves at a rapid rate and reaches or overcomes the performance of the current technology. Disruptive technologies gain their illboding name from their propensity to take manufacturers of current technologies by surprise and rob them of their market shares.

To get a more active grasp of the concepts, we applied our newfound understanding to a context we are all familiar with; higher education. We had a lively classroom session centering around whether online education is disruptive to traditional universities. The participants were mainly 2nd and 3rd year students, with limited experience of online education.

The groups’ task was to identify key value attributes of traditional university education, and the same for online education, understood as e.g. MOOCs.

Value attributes of traditional university education

The first key attributes identified for traditional education centered around the social aspects of the university experience. The students initial viewpoint was that the sense of community, the social skills and the networks you gain are not replicable in online education. They pointed out aspects of trust – “you know who you are dealing with”, and also recognized the value of getting face-to-face supervision and being able to seek guidance in person. Only after the social dimensions, did the students point out the value attribute of gaining knowledge and skills in your area of study. The possibility to tailor your degree according to your wishes was interestingly also brought forward as an attribute of traditional education. After some prodding the students arrived at the value attribute of being able to award a degree as a key attribute of traditional education.

Value attributes of online education

When moving on to value attributes of online education the students were initially hesitant but quickly gained momentum. Interestingly, the first value attribute mentioned was more structure in your studies, a clearer “storyline”. This could be taken as a pointer to us within traditional education   to better articulate and package our offerings. More freedom was brought forward, namely regarding time and place of your studies, as well as the courses being cheaper than in traditional universities in many countries. A larger assortment of courses and more possibilities to specialize were the next attributes to be identified, and at this point some of the students wavered regarding their previous stance on the better possibility to tailor-make your degree in traditional education.

Finally the students arrived at the value attributes of having access to more experts and possibly more recent scientific knowledge.

A disruption or not?

Once we had identified the value attributes of both traditional university education and online education, we set out to discuss and compare the two sets of value attributes. The overwhelming opinion in the classroom was, that even with e.g. VR technology, social networking etc, the social value of participating in traditional education is superior to what can be provided in online education. During the discussion the almost limitless access to different topics and experts in online education seemed to gain more and more appeal with the students, but they simultaneously identified the need for quality control. At this point one of the students voiced that online education might actually make traditional universities stronger, as their position as gatekeepers and awarders of quality degrees rises in value. Our final conclusion as a group when our time ran out was, that if we could combine the best of these both worlds, our students would through online education have access to far more knowledge and expertise than a single university ever could provide, but the home university would be in a key role in making sure that the courses taken form a coherent whole and are within defined quality parameters. In this vision online education will not form a disruption, but rather an enhancement and significant improvement of traditional university education.

A goal worth dreaming of when working on digitalization of higher education.

4 thoughts on “A student view on the disruptiveness of online education

  1. Your blog post deals with a highly interesting topic in pedagogical terms. Thank you for sharing the thoughts of your students! The viewpoints presented are understandable and maybe not that surprising, if the comparison is made between massive, open, online courses and a relatively small traditional university like Åbo Akademi University (which I assume to be the point of comparison?). Of course, there is a considerable degree of heterogeneity within both ”online education” and ”traditional education”, and often the two are combined within formal higher education. Therefore, it would be interesting to know more about student viewpoints on, for instance, MOOCs versus traditional massive courses at big universities, or closed online education in small groups versus traditional education in small groups and so on. How would conceptions of trust, networks, social skills and knowledge change? Also, the access to knowledge is itself a tricky question and, in line with your blog, online education does not per definition mean ”better access to better knowledge”. Finally, I believe the point about quality is indeed an important and challenging question, which deserves attention concerning higher education overall.

  2. Thank you for sharing your and your students’ views and opinions on traditional and online education in terms of its sustainability. I think, this is a great idea to start collecting feedback from students on what do they actually think of an online education. Today, more and more we go towards online world in general. I do not think that traditional education will be changed to online one sometime soon, however, this is a new phenomenon that is growing rapidly and having an impact on the ways we teach and educate people. During the past years, distant courses (Adobe Connect, Skype for business, Moodle etc.) as well as digital technology elements (classes where students should bring their own device) have been incorporated in the traditional teaching. Personally, I think that we as teachers and educational institution in general should balance between traditional and online learning as well as pick up the best methods from both. In order to provide the best value education, we should support students’ traditional learning by the development of the use of digital education and production of digital learning material.

  3. I think this was an excellent way of getting the students to actually think, somewhat, outside the box! To me it sounds like your students understood the concept of disruptive technologies, instead of just learning a few examples without actually thinking about how it all goes together. I think students easily fall into the trap of forming a view based on a few examples of what a concept means. Then, using this view to identify, in this case, disruptive technologies, it would be easy to miss that one can think of online vs traditional education as one. One might not even consider the option that something not very closely related to the few examples can, in fact, also be descirbed in that manner.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with both the original author and Ingrida in that online education could be used to enhance the programs we offer at traditional universities. In natural sciences, where laboratory and field work often are essential to the degree programs, some see digitalization of education as a threat. While it is clear that laboratory and field work must be done in the offline world, that is not automatically true to many other skills a natural scientist should learn. Online courses could at least be used for teaching the many computer programs that are important in each degree program. This way, students could more easily do things in their own pace and hopefully learn the programs more thoroughly, not just copy what a teacher does on the projected screen (as it, unfortunately, sometimes goes).
    Optimally, integrating more online courses (or parts of traditional courses done online) in our degree programs would leave the teachers with more time to spend on improving the teaching that needs to be done on field, in a laboratory, or in classroom.

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