Covid-19 Boost to Online Learning May Backfire

Many courses will be poor substitutes for the originals
An empty study hall at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Va.,
Many areas are deserted at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Va., which is currently on spring break, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The university announced that it would shift classes online amid a global outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

As the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, spread rapidly around the world, colleges and universities are shutting down face-to-face classes and moving to remote and online teaching formats.

On the surface, it’s the classic opportunity for disruptive innovation to take root. All of a sudden, the competition for online learning isn’t live, in-person classes. Those classes are canceled. Now, the alternative is nothing at all.

The theory of disruptive innovation predicts that primitive services take root in areas where all they have to beat is nonconsumption. From there, fueled by a technology enabler, they improve and, over time, become capable of tackling more complicated problems and serving more demanding users. Enticed by a value proposition of relative convenience, affordability, and simplicity, people migrate to the improving disruptive innovation over time.

I’ve long noted, in Education Next (“Disruptive Innovation and Education,” “Taking Tablet Learning Global”) and elsewhere (Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools), that online learning bears the hallmarks of a technology that can enable disruptive innovation.

So with no alternative to learn in person at a college or university, wouldn’t the cancellation of classes create the perfect area of nonconsumption for online learning to enter, gain a stronger foothold (it’s worth noting that already over a third of postsecondary students take at least one online class, and roughly 30% of graduate students study exclusively online), and grow to further supplant face-to-face learning? Won’t 18–22 year-old residential students and their parents be asking themselves by the end of the semester why they should pay giant bills to study in-person when they can instead just learn online in a medium comfortable to their generation?

I’m skeptical.

Given that college and university faculty are scrambling to move courses online, it’s now painfully clear that schools ought to have had more robust disaster preparedness plans in place in the event of interruptions in their campus operations. Going forward, that’s something that one hopes they will fix. Online learning will be a big part of those plans.

At the same time, precisely because many schools did not have robust plans in place and do not have great infrastructure or resources to build good online courses rapidly, online learning is about to get a bad reputation at many campuses, I suspect.

But that’s OK, right? After all, disruptive innovations start as primitive and then improve.

I’m not so sure we’re in the typical circumstance where the logic and usual patterns of disruption hold.

When disruptive innovation plants itself among nonconsumers, they are typically people who lack the expertise or money to use the dominant products or services in a market.

What’s happening now on college campuses doesn’t, at the moment, seem to be the same thing. If the interruption of traditional classes is temporary and business-as-usual resumes in the fall, I doubt that students (and their parents) who have experienced poorly constructed, hastily built online courses by faculty, many of whom know little about the science of teaching and learning to begin with, will look back fondly on those online experiences and then wonder why it is that they had ever dragged themselves to class to begin with.

Even in cases where teaching and learning centers on campuses intervene and help build the courses, they are likely overstretched at the moment, and so many courses will be poor substitutes for the originals (even if the originals weren’t terribly inspiring).

There could even be blowback against online learning at traditional colleges and universities from faculty who were new to teaching online and didn’t receive the requisite support to offer a solid experience, and from students who found it an unsatisfactory downgrade from what they had been used to.

As an advocate for the potential of online learning to create a more robust learning system, I hope I’m wrong. I hope tools, like the active learning platform that the Minerva Project has created and mobile-learning platforms like those of Pensar Learning, are leveraged thoughtfully to create more robust and accessible experiences. But I don’t see evidence of that occurring yet.

Yes, it’s true that tools like Zoom can help faculty members stand up a synchronous class relatively quickly and facilitate a reasonably active learning experience. But for faculty members who haven’t used it before—or for universities unaware of some of the options custom-built for education—it still might not go as well as one would hope.

Just because something is done online, doesn’t mean it will be done well.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this will arrest the broader movement toward online learning. The growth of places like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University and Bellevue University won’t be hurt by Covid-19. It may very well be aided.

But if the interruption of physical classes is temporary and traditional schools go back to business-as-usual next year, then I think the odds are greater that it will poison the reputation of online learning rather than help it on those traditional campuses. If, however, the interruption proves more long lasting—if Covid-19 is more pernicious than we understand today and taxes the health-care system more than we anticipate—then we might have a different story.

As with all things, circumstances matter. At least for now, I’m not betting on this being the moment where online learning triumphs in a decisive or lasting way.

Michael Horn is an executive editor of Education Next and a co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

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