Monday, May 21, 2012

Disruptive Innovation Coming to Higher Education? The Role of Massive Open Online Courses

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The notion of disruptive innovation was popularized by Clayton Christensen ..., and is described as change, usually technological, that causes upheaval of an entire industry sector. We have seen plenty of disruptive innovations in the modern digital era, ... .

There is a certain irony for those of us who work in academic biomedical and health informatics. On the one hand, we are immersed in the technologies that have caused so much disruptive innovation, ... . On the other hand, those of us in academic informatics apply our work at the intersection of two fields that may be the lone remaining holdouts for disruptive innovation, namely healthcare and education.


This potential disruptive innovation in higher education comes in the form of what some call massive open online courses (MOOCs). This area has received a great deal of attention lately with the foray of some of the leading US universities into this area, ... .

As most readers of this blog know, I have great enthusiasm for online learning. A good deal of my work in the last decade has focused on the fusion of educational technology with biomedical and health informatics ... . However, the result has mostly been education based on the traditional model of the professor teaching and interacting with a relatively modest number of students.

MOOCs change the calculus of online learning in a much more profound way. [snip].

Despite their high profiles, these are not the first such initiatives to disseminate high-quality higher education content via the Web. Two other initiatives, Udacity and the Khan Academy, have been doing this for several years. Resources like the University of Pittsburgh Epidemiology Supercourse have been in existence even longer.

Will these MOOCs lead to disruption in higher education? The cynic in me notes that Ng and Koller are not changing the core Stanford product, where a small number of highly smart students pay a substantial amount of money in the form of Stanford tuition for the privilege of being on the Palo Alto campus and getting a degree from Stanford. I also note that these courses are mostly basic courses, ... .

But the optimist in me with the goal of spreading knowledge via technology cannot help but be impressed at the uptake and reach of these courses. I certainly enjoy the global interaction I have through the various educational activities in which I take part in on the Internet. [snip].

As is often the case, the ultimate reality will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Clearly the Web provides an unprecedented vehicle for knowledge dissemination. But education is so much more than a student absorbing knowledge. There is also the in-depth application of that knowledge for real-world purposes. [snip].

Of course we have shown to our satisfaction at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) that pretty much all types of learning can be delivered online. But we have also learned that an education involves more than learning. Early on in our foray into distance learning, I was struck how we had developed, without deliberately trying to do so, a virtual community. When students join our program, they not only get access to our courses, but also our faculty, their student colleagues, and our connections to the larger informatics world, including our connections to industry. Even the staff in our office provide a conduit for their new journey into careers and other activities in the field.

But I am also, in a sense, part of this MOOC world, due to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) Curriculum Project that has absorbed a great deal of my professional time, effort, and passion over the last couple years. All of this potential for disruptive innovation of informatics education therefore comes at a time of critical juncture for our field. [snip]

In conclusion, I view the potential for disruptive innovation in higher education as a challenge and an opportunity. While I am not worried it will make my world dissipate like camera film or bank tellers, I do know the ride will be bumpy. But in the end, I am confident that education will be improved and possibly more cost-effective. I am also confident of the continued role I will play in advising students and others about directions and opportunities for our field. [snip].

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