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Are universities scared of the online learning movement?

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Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/AP/File

(Read caption) Harvard President Drew Faust, left, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield speak during a news conference announcing a new partnership in online education earlier this month in Cambridge, Mass. Klein argues that despite public supprt of online learning initiatives, most big universities are doing what they can to stop the spread of online coursework.

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I posted last week on Organizations and Markets about the tepid,and entirely predictable, reaction of the higher education establishment to the information technology revolution. Mainline universities loudly proclaim their love of online learning — and pedagogical innovation more generally — while doing everything possible to retard it. The strategy has been to make a few easy, low-cost, conservative moves that preserve the status quo, such as putting some existing courses online, while trying to suppress the innovative outsiders like Phoenix, DeVry, TED, Kahn Academy, etc. It’s a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls sustaining innovation — incremental changes that keep the existing market structure intact. The last thing the higher-ed establishment wants is disruptive innovation that challenges its dominant incumbent position.

As Morgan Brown wrote earlier this year, universities are guilds, and it’s this organizational structure, not bad leadership or the wrong ideology, that underlies the universities’ hostility to markets. If there is fundamental reform, it will surely come from outside the guild system, not within it. It’s great that Harvard and MIT and other elite universities are offering some classes online. But look instead to bolder experiments like the Mises Academy — not a duplicate of the standard degree program, but a modular, flexible, focused approach to teaching Austrian economics and related subjects. Call it guerrilla teaching. Let’s see where this new movement can go!


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