Monday, December 6, 2010
Online Learning and the Growth of Disruptive Innovations
My first digital camera was a fixed focus Sony Mavica in about 1998 that took 0.31 megapixel pictures (640x480 pixels). I paid $750 for it and was thrilled with it!
The pictures were poor compared to a film camera and the camera was ridiculously expensive. But the pictures were plenty good enough to put on web pages.
This is typical of disruptive innovations. They start at relatively low quality, typically high prices and appeal only to niche markets. It was true of transistor radios (originally poor audio quality but portable!), calculators (fewer functions than sliderules, short battery life), mp3 players (awkward interfaces before the iPod), video recorders (expensive, heavy equipment compared to 8mm cameras), etc. The big difference with disruptive innovations is that they are on a steeper learning curve.
The reason that digital cameras replaced film cameras despite the inauspicous start represented by my Sony Mavica is that, being based on digital electronics, they had the opportunity to improve rapidly. Their price could fall and features improve at exponential rates following the technology improvement of microelectronics. In contrast, film photography improved at a much slower rate. Within a few years digital photography nearly completely replaced film photography.
What does this have to do with online learning? Today online learning is primarily applied in specialty situations: remedial tutorials, early learning, otherwise-unavailable courses. But the rate of improvement of online learning may inherit the benefits of other online technologies: cheaper servers, better displays, better PCs, faster connections, better authoring software, ever growing communities of courseware authors, ever growing communities of potential students. Compare this with the expected rate of improvement in traditional classroom education. Who will win that race?
Does the steeper learning curve of online learning compared to classroom instruction suggest that online learning will overtake classroom instruction like digital cameras overtook film cameras?
The answer to that question lies in two sub-questions:
- Which parameters of online learning need improvement to be preferred to classroom instruction? and
- Are those parameters likely to benefit from the rapidly-improving underlying technologies (servers, PCs, disk space, displays, author base, student base)?
What do you think?
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