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.