Was Clayton Christensen Wrong About Online Education?

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Fueled by the isolation of the pandemic, online education grew in importance. Over the past two years, higher education had a choice – halt lessons entirely or shift to remote education. These impending choices may have made the prediction of the late great Clayton Christensen seem all the more likely. 

Clayton Christensen had predicted that online education would rapidly escalate the consolidation of higher education, leading to the closure of more than half of all institutions. So far, Christensen’s prophecy has yet to take place.

Bob Ubell, Author & Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, returns to talk about what has gotten in the way of replacing traditional education with online education and whether or not that inevitability is still to come.

Christensen’s prediction may not have happened, but wasn’t misguided

The closure of approximately half of all higher education institutions was a relatively dramatic prediction. However, Clayton Christensen had prescient insight into the potential for online education. 

While some traditional institutions suffered when forced to make hard choices regarding remote education, the world did not see the collapse of conventional education.

The growth of accessibility to online education has been beneficial to many populations and ultimately has seen much success in the institutions that have adopted it. By allowing older, working people to gain an education without coming to the traditional learning environment, online learning has been influential in expanding access to higher education.

Traditional education did not die, as predicted by Christensen. However, online education did grow vastly, making the lofty predictions somewhat accurate. 

However, despite the growing numbers of online students, traditional education did not experience many adverse effects.

Traditional education flourishing in conjunction with online education

The amplification of online education does not necessarily cause the downfall of conventional education. 

Instead, despite online education’s growing importance and popularity, conventional learning environments have been strengthened, according to Bob.

While online education has been growing, in large part, it is has been growing within traditional institutions. Ultimately, these institutions have grown to include another stream of revenue rather than the outright replacement of their existing traditional student population 

Most students that would have attended an in-person education program are continuing to do so. The expanding digital education offerings have not caused many traditional students to shift modes. Instead, they offer non-traditional students the opportunity to participate in higher ed more flexibly.

The future of traditional education in a growingly digital world

Online education is not a piece of gimmicky technology. Instead, it is composed of many different things, including pedagogy, social features, and the technology that allows it to function. Therefore, when considering the adoption of online education and its subsequent evolution, it’s vital to consider how each specific education system will benefit or suffer from investment in the composition.

Under the guidance of Clayton Christensen, Southern New Hampshire University has shifted from a quiet institution to having over 100,000 online students. This approach has offered this specific university many benefits and opportunities.

But, this heavy focus on shifting to online education is not the right move for every institution. 

There are endless possibilities for approaches across every university. Following the leader of one or two successful institutions will not lead to the prosperity of each university. Rather, each university should consider its focuses, goals, and needs and develop a tailored plan.

Online learning did not replace the conventional university. But, it is providing more avenues for success and growth. 

While Christensen was not accurate in his prophecy, he was not utterly misguided in the importance of online learning.

The future of education is brimming with endless possibilities. Therefore, each institution should carefully contemplate its journey and establish a unique roadmap to success. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Bob Ubell, Author & Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.