May 17 2013

Why the Past Cannot Predict the Future of MOOCs and Online Learning [#Infographic]

Higher education has withstood centuries of progress without changing. That’s about to change.

Despite its relatively recent arrival on the higher education scene, online learning is now more than 10 years old. While we aren’t ready to write a history of MOOCs (massive open online courses) just yet, it’s worth looking at how online learning has evolved, with the hope of deciphering what the future holds.

The infographic below presents a few telling figures about online learning in higher education. For example, in 2002, just 48 percent of colleges believed that online education was critical to their long-term success. Ten years later, that number has grown to nearly 70 percent. In the early 2000s, the Web was too new to truly understand how schools could leverage its enormous power. We have much to learn, but it has become obvious that the Internet will be at the core of learning in the future.

In March, academic leaders — including provosts from a number of prominent universities, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and executives from edX and Coursera— met at the MIT Media Lab to discuss the path of online education. They discussed why higher education, which has for centuries remained largely the same, is poised for real change. While some may disagree, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen made a strong case for the disruption of education:

Christensen is known for his theory of “disruptive innovation” in business, which holds that upstart challengers usually displace market incumbents by first establishing a toehold with low-cost products in markets that the incumbents are willing to cede. Over time, the challengers manage to increase quality while still keeping costs low, taking over successively higher-margin markets until they finally dominate the market as a whole.

As Christensen argued in his talk, that pattern has played out in the steel industry, in the automotive industry, in the computer industry — and is now playing out in the cellphone industry. But, Christensen explained, it has never occurred in the hotel industry, because challengers cannot compete for high-margin business without adopting the cost model of the incumbents: If Holiday Inn wants to compete against Ritz-Carlton, it has no choice but to hire concierges and put in marble floors. What challengers in the hotel industry lack, he said, is an “extendable core” — a new technological approach that can be steadily improved at low cost.

Higher education has been in the same boat, Christensen said — until now. The suite of technologies that edX and others have introduced — video lectures, online discussion boards, automated grading algorithms, communal text-annotation programs, virtual labs and the like — constitute education’s extendable core. These technologies are now in their infancy, but like the steel produced in “mini mills” that displaced integrated steel mills, they will only improve in quality.

It’s clear that change is occurring, but will the Web really unsettle education as much as Christensen suggests? Check out the infographic below to learn more about the evolution of online learning over the past 10 years, and decide for yourself where it’s headed.

History of Online Learning

This infographic was originally featured on