WeWork, the leader in coworking spaces, has been turning heads in education circles for the last year. It acquired Flatiron, a prominent coding bootcamp, and MissionU, a one-year college alternative. Then came its partnership with 2U, the standout online program management company.
Among other things, the partnership allows 2U students to use WeWork’s office space as study halls, and the two companies will build a learning center together in 2019.
The place-based aspect of the partnership is what is so interesting, as it points to what will happen next with the disruptive innovation of online learning, namely how it will improve.
The future of online learning in higher education is in bricks, not just clicks. But these bricks won’t look like the gorgeous and overgrown college campuses we have today.
It’s not a hybrid
Industries often experience a hybrid stage in their evolution when they are in the midst of a disruptive transformation.
A hybrid is a combination of the new technology with the old. It’s also a sustaining innovation, not a disruptive one. Think of the car industry. As we await the emergence of mainstream electric vehicles, leading companies want the virtues of both electricity and gasoline, so they have developed hybrids.
These hybrids will likely sustain gasoline-powered cars for some time to come, but hybrids typically fall by the wayside as a pure disruptive innovation becomes good enough.
Banking, retail, steamships, photography, and excavators have experienced—or are experiencing—similar transitions. In retail, for example, although online retail has been disruptive to brick-and-mortar retail stores, the traditional brick-and-mortar stores have used the Internet to create “bricks-and-clicks” retail—a classic hybrid solution designed to sustain and improve how they operate currently.
As Clay Christensen and I wrote for the New York Times back in 2013, traditional colleges are currently going through a hybrid phase where they use online learning to sustain their current business model. Their students are consequently not saving time or money.
Improving online learning
Like all disruptive technologies, online learning started as primitive—think boring text online with poor design and little communication.
But like all disruptive technologies, online learning has also improved over time. Internet access is faster and more reliable. Virtual communications tools such as Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts make synchronous online communication simple and inexpensive. Online content is becoming more engaging. And most now have an Internet-enabled device within reach, whether as a laptop, a tablet, or a mobile smartphone.
Still, engagement has been a tough nut to crack. HarvardX and MITx, which offer online courses, published research that of the 498,000 participants who said they intended to “complete enough course activities to earn a certificate,” the median certification rate was 30 percent.
Some studies that attempt to control for the characteristics of the student population and compare face-to-face outcomes with those in online courses show face-to-face having better persistence rates. Accredited online programs often serve students in a range of circumstances that make completion difficult because of academic preparedness, financial challenges, and other life circumstances, such as attending part-time while balancing demands of work and family.
How can online learning keep improving?
Online learning may consequently share something else with online retail.
As the disruptive online retailers have steadily gained ground, one way that some online retailers are improving is by opening brick-and-mortar stores whose primary purpose is to serve as showrooms for online items. Bonobos, a men’s apparel store that was once dogmatic about only selling online, started opening brick-and-mortar stores in 2012. The stores carry little-to-no inventory and employ only a few salespeople. They don’t carry the massive inventory or footprint of a traditional department store. Warby Parker and Amazon are following a similar path.
This phenomenon of a pure disruption incorporating an element of an old technology—but not the old technology in its full form— is an example of disruption’s upward march. After getting a foothold by launching among nonconsumers and those with the lowest performance needs, companies on a disruptive path pursue sustaining innovations—such as retail showrooms—to allow them to climb upmarket by doing more jobs in the lives of more demanding customers.
In much the same way that purely online retail still doesn’t allow someone to try something on or play with a product to see if it really is the right fit, online learning may lack something that the physical world has as well.
One way to improve online learning may be to give it a physical component—a blended-learning option—so that students can connect with other students in-person, create community and forge a stronger network, hold each other responsible for completing, and the like.
That brings us to the partnership between WeWork and 2U. WeWork offers 2U students a place to learn and a community with whom to learn and interact more broadly. Although many of 2U’s students were independently finding and connecting offline with others in their area before, 2U has now embedded that option as a feature, not an inconvenient arrangement that students had to construct on their own.
Importantly, WeWork and 2U are not recreating the sprawling campus environment of college with its traditional classrooms, dorms, grassy green quads, and recreational facilities. But they are offering an in-person environment in an experiment that could dramatically bolster engagement—and herald the future of online learning as it continues its disruptive march.