Published on 2013/05/31

The Impact of Disruptive Technology-Based Innovations in Higher Education

The Impact of Disruptive Technology-Based Innovations in Higher Education
Technological advances are easing the delivery of higher education to students, but new strategies must be found to ensure quality remains high as accessibility expands exponentially.

The relationship between cost, access and quality is tight and significant within the mission and the goals of institutions and governments worldwide, and is frequently referred to as the ‘iron triangle.’ Increasing access, constraining cost and maintaining quality standards define an impossible wish list, given the level of incompatibility among these drivers. The solution in many cases has been introducing exclusivity to post-secondary education through narrowing paths for learners.

Recent advances in technology have the potential of becoming a powerful response to this conundrum. They have become disruptive innovations, not only in terms of teaching and learning practices, but also as key strategic elements throughout all of the service components of students’ life cycles. In looking at the current landscape, it is recognizable that mobile technologies, open educational resources, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), cloud computing and analytics (big data) are now part of the everyday news concerning trends in the development and delivery of education at all levels. These have a decidedly disruptive effect, operating synergistically in pushing organizations to change their business models, improve learning effectiveness, while also (hopefully) facilitating access to education in a scalable and cost-effective manner. Such changes have a direct impact on the meaning of quality, as well as on how quality should be measured. Faculty, administrators and students will have different perspectives when it comes to how such technology-based innovations need to be used to enhance the learning experience while maintaining reasonable costs and accessibility. Based on my own research (2013), we summarize the perspectives of these different stakeholders when it comes to the quality assurance of online programs faced with such a disruptive landscape.

For institutions, the focus must be primarily in assuring comparability of learning effectiveness between traditional and online education, to avoid the stigma of second-class quality standards. This means that technology is accessible, robust, reliable and media-appropriate to enable:

  1. Interaction among students, and between students and faculty members;
  2. Access and use of e-resources;
  3. Deployment of myriad student support services, such as registration, general advising, feedback and complaints, prior learning assessment, career advisement, remedial instruction, community involvement, as well as faculty support functions.

Institutions need to provide an environment that instigates the creation and distribution of content, expanding opportunities for reusing, remixing and repurposing knowledge and content. Learning environments must also encourage the deployment of rich data for personalized services and quality assurance; while maintaining rigor and academic integrity.

From a faculty viewpoint, technology is a vehicle for enhanced interaction. Faculty will provide clear guidelines and serve as role models for that interaction. The virtual environment will allow for social and cognitive presence. Active learning techniques will be used, stimulating collaboration among learners and supporting technology fluency, digital literacy and critical assessment of e-resources. Faculty members expect technology will be seamless so they can focus on the subject matter and in the learning progress of learners. Technology should be able to support authentic and comprehensive assessment. It should also allow easy collection of student information and feedback. The necessary structure of learning should be easily shaped within the educational environment, and preferably allows for personalized paths for learners. Instructors will need to be kept abreast of new technologies, and professional development is necessary to enable faculty to explore the innovations in an effective fashion.

In this new, technology-rich landscape, learners expect their activities will be authentic and will match their personal and professional needs. Content needs to be cognitively relevant and engaging. Learning should stimulate and support collaboration in an anywhere/anytime framework, balancing active and reflective activities and using e-resources that attend to a variety of learning styles. Learners need to be autonomous in order to be successful. Course structure should support independence and self-motivation, and help students to develop time management skills and technology fluency. Learners aspire to have their voices heard through open channels for feedback, personalized services and technology-enabled tools for self-diagnostic improvement and assessment.

Despite the almost limitless potential of technology innovation in learning, there is a dichotomy in the gains to be achieved. In many cases, the richer learning experience that is achieved through such technological advances brings with it narrower accessibility and higher costs. Open education employed within the framework of scalable digital technology have recently been responsible for a disruption to the status quo of higher education. Such innovations need to revise not only the learning processes, but also the underlying business models, in order to break the iron triangle. The tenets that once held quality as dependent on a high cost per learner, and therefore exclusivity, are being shaken. This is the reason behind the recent re-discovery of online education. In order to fulfill such potential, we will need to find new and yet unknown strategies, dependent on forward-thinking educational leaders and solid research to back up wise decision making.

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Apricot Wilson, Rachel McCarthy, “The Future of (Open) Education with Sir John Daniel,” UNESCO Bangkok News, May 25, 2013, available from

Eren Bali, Dennis Yang, “The Time is Now for Mobile Technology in Higher Education,” The EvoLLLution, February 8, 2013, available from

Jill Campbell, “Technologies That Will Revolutionize Online Learning,” The EvoLLLution, March 25, 2013, available from

Rob Kingyens, “The Moneyball Effect: How Data Will Transform Student Success in 10 Years,” The EvoLLLution, March 29, 2013, available from

Stella Porto, “Cost, Access and Quality: Breaking the Iron Triangle through Disruptive Technology-Based Innovations”, in Assuring Quality in Online Education: Practices and Processes at the Teaching, Resource, and Program Levels, ed. Kay Shattuck, (Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2013).

The EvoLLLution, “MOOC: Massive Open Online Course,” January 2013, accessed from

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/05/31 at 1:49 pm

I completely agree with Porto’s argument that institutions should focus on ensuring comparability between traditional and online education in order to remove the stigma that the latter is not up to par. An important part of this process is to acknowledge that the two forms of education delivery target different types of learners with specific needs. Thus, though they will be comparable in terms of quality, their design and format could be quite different.

Ewan Philipps 2013/06/02 at 5:02 pm

Porto makes the point that, as institutions start to re-imagine their education delivery, their underlying business models also have to change. I am curious to know of some examples of institutions that have successfully moved into new, sustainable business models…

Stella Porto 2013/06/28 at 5:47 pm

The news models are slowly being developed. We still need data that will prove these to be effective and sustainable, but some of them are noteworthy. I would include in this list the institutions undertaking competency-based education. More recently, I have seen affordable programs being proposed where one finds a mix of competency-based education, with other more traditional online models for other educational components of the program. We are also observing partnerships between institutions, as well as institutions and other organizations with the intent to reduce costs of development and reuse courses in more effective ways. There is obvious a clash between those that feel endangered by such changes, and the economics of higher education will have to play out its course in order for the warning to make itself heard by all stakeholders. There is a definite reflection about relevancy that we all need to consider moving forward.

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