Leaders in Professional, Continuing and Online Education

Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

Disrupting the Disrupters

The advent of online education was a classic Clayton Christensen disrupter. That was a quarter of a century ago. Now the disrupter is becoming disrupted.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen described disruptive innovation as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” That’s just what started in the early to mid-1990s for online learning and continued until today. Colleges and universities efficiently reached new, underserved markets by virtually bringing the university to the student. The trend continues with overall college enrollment in the U.S. dropping for a fourth year, while the online portion of that enrollment continues to rise. But something else is coming into play — in a very large way!

Online programs at thousands of colleges and universities are beginning to see a flattening of the growth curve. It is an inflection point in the inevitable product life-cycle curve. We are now topping the maturity segment of the curve for many modest-size programs. As markets are saturated and new competition and innovations enter the field, we are moving into the decline segment of the “traditional” online program.

A number of players and factors are changing the field. Georgia Institute of Technology calls it “at-scale” learning; others call it the “mega-university” — whatever you call it, this is the advent of the very large, 100,000-plus-student-scale online provider. Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn (U.K.) are among the largest providers. But individual universities such as Southern New Hampshire, Arizona State and Georgia Tech are approaching the “at-scale” mark as well. One could say that’s evidence of success in online learning. And without question it is.

But, with highly reputable programs at this scale and tuition rates at half or below the going rate for regional and state universities, the impact is rippling through higher ed. Georgia Tech’s top 10-ranked computer science master’s with a total expense of less than $10,000 has drawn more than 10,000 qualified majors. That has an impact on the enrollment at scores of online computer science master’s programs offered elsewhere. The overall online enrollment is up, but it is disproportionately centered in affordable scaled programs, draining students from the more expensive, smaller programs at individual universities. The dominoes fall as more and more high-quality at-scale programs proliferate.

Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and executive professor of educational policy, explains the slow-motion seismic shift we are watching in higher education. The benefits are huge; the potential is even greater!

But, somehow, it does not feel the same being disrupted as it did 20 years ago when we were doing the disruption. So, what can be done by nonscaling universities? Much.

We can begin disruption anew with microcredentialing of just-in-time modules that anticipate the tech-driven training that industry will need in the coming year or two. We can offer microcredentialing of the communication, leadership and social skills that businesses say our graduates lack such as online leadership; communication skills (verbal, video and interactive); creative and innovative thinking; and more. We can serve international markets where growth is faster than domestically and needs are even greater. And we can seek to collaborate with other colleges and universities to jointly offer programs that draw upon the more diverse base of knowledge experts across multiple institutions.

Even if enrollments have not yet reached a plateau in your traditional online programs, now is the time to begin to look at the life-cycle curve and plan for the eventuality that your university will also be disrupted.

This article was first posted January 9th in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow, and Founding Director of the National Council for Online Education at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.


The National Council for Online Education is dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level. The National Council is uniquely focused on excellence at the highest levels – leadership, administration, strategy – applying a macro lens to the online teaching and learning enterprise. Its engaged members include the stewards of online learning at most of the leading universities in the nation.

The National Council for Online Education offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.


Click here to learn more.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

What Does Free Community College Mean for Professional Learning Spaces?

By SmartBrief Editors This post is produced in partnership with UPCEA.   The idea of offering free access to community college, and even entire degree programs, has gained steam in recent years. CNBC reports that 11 states in the country offer at least some tuition-free community college programs to qualified students and nine more have…

Read More

UPCEA Member Analytics: Managing a Marketing Infrastructure

No longer is marketing just the development of a catalog, viewbook, brochure or billboard. It now includes marketing strategy and customer engagement as well as brand management.  In an evolving economy fueled by data analytics, making wise marketing resource and infrastructure decisions is critical.  Earlier analyses have shown that there has been a clear shift…

Read More

Micro-Mobility, E-Scooters and Implications for Higher Education

If young Millennials and Gen Z’ers continue to disrupt through greater adoption of other modes of transportation in the sharing economy and advancements in driver-assisted and self-driving vehicles continue, expect our cities to start to transform. With less disposable income than previous generations, a heighten consciousness toward the environment and disinclination to purchase big ticket…

Read More

Coalition Supports FY2020 House Appropriations Bill

UPCEA joined with ACE and 35 other organizations yesterday to send a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations as they were approving spending bills for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education for fiscal year 2020. Today, the House Committee on Appropriations approved its bill, allocating $75.9 billion to the Department of Education…

Read More

Because we don’t want our team members to ‘Move On’

Many moons ago I wrote about the UPCEA Hallmark of Excellence in Online Leadership – Professionalism and how online leaders could begin implementing aspects of that Hallmark in their performance appraisals and professional development plans of staff members (see Professionalism and Staff Evals). The other day I read this piece on the Gallup Talent Blog.…

Read More

Giving my inbox ‘One More Try’

Friends, it has been a while. Since my last post we’ve hosted several events, I have attended many events, and there has been much news to report. Recently, in my 115th attempt to change how I manage my inbox (as an inbox zero person I am always looking for new tactics to get my inbox…

Read More

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.