The Other Side of Online Learning Innovation: 3 Reasons Why Promising Projects Fail in Higher Education

Concurrent Session 8
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Why do some high-potential, online learning innovations fall so short? This interactive session explores this question through case studies of two actual, failed innovations at a major research university. The audience will be able to pinpoint and avoid hazards contributing to implementation and scale problems in higher and postsecondary education. 


Dr. Julie Schell is the Executive Director of Learning Design for the School of Design and Creative Technologies (SDCT) at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is also a Clinical Professor in both the Colleges of Education and Fine Arts. She is a prominent expert learning experience design (LxD) and educational innovation. She uses her expertise in learning science to teach design thinking to residential students at The University of Texas at Austin and learners at other universities, K-12 institutions, and Fortune 500 companies nationwide. Julie has unique expertise in standing up successful LxD startups in university contexts. Before joining SDCT, Julie served as the Director of TEXAS OnRamps, a statewide initiative coordinated by The University of Texas at Austin. For five years, Julie's strategy and creative vision led to the dramatic growth of OnRamps from 150 student enrollments in 2012 to over 15,000 in 2017. Julie has more than 20 years of experience in higher education and has held positions at the nation's top research universities, including Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard. In 2014, Teachers College at Columbia University identified her as an Early Riser in Higher Education for her original contributions to the field. Schell's scholarship focuses on the science of learning, pedagogical innovation, and technology. Julie has worked on LxD initiatives with thousands of national and international faculty. She has led pedagogy and student learning projects on site in Aruba, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Germany and throughout the United States. She has also designed and implemented pedagogical innovation projects online for universities in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Africa.

Extended Abstract

Online learning innovations hold great promise for the future of higher education. However, not every ambitious venture into online learning succeeds. Just like in any innovation space, many exhilarating projects die during implementation, or what Govindarajan and Trimble (2010) refer to as “the other side of innovation.” This is the side of online learning projects that holds often invisible yet sizeable hazards that trip up even the most talented faculty and teams. And like corporations, while institutional leaders are putting unprecedented resources toward online initaitives they are also likely paying too little attention to the darker side of innovation.

This session will contribute to the effective design and scale of online learning projects by higher education institutions by engaging in an interactive case study of two real-life, innovations at The University of Texas at Austin. The case studies include projects the author was engaged in, including a faculty-led development of a novel, student-centered social learning tool and a Massive Open Online Course meant to scale the innovative pedagogy of inquiry-based learning. Using a deep dive approach, participants will conduct a systems analysis to uncover reasons why both projects fell short. The author will use Pearson's online engagement tool, Learning Catalytics, to drive engagement with and lead the audience through the analyses.

Participants will explore and come away with at least three generalizable reasons that online learning projects fail to achieve their promise in higher education:

  1. Financial, time, and staff overinvestments during ideation;
  2. Failing to develop a specific strategy for learner transformation; and
  3. The lack of sustainable and scalable business models that are compatible with the multifaceted nature of higher education.  

When successful, online learning innovations can address some of the most wicked, unyielding problems our institutions face. For example, the modality can broaden access for the extant masses of non-consumers of college-level learning. It can leverage artificial intelligence and augmented reality to maximize learning for every student, no matter their geography or demographics; and by doing so, online learning projects can dramatically increase the likelihood of successful college persistence and completion. Finally, if designed elegantly, online learning can offer much more than a means for open and equitable transmission of content – it can transform students’ lives much like our face-to-face classroom experiences. But our aspiring projects can only do so if we can steward them across the thorns, cracks, and crevices inherent in the other side of innovation.


Govindarajan, C. & Trimble, C. (2010). The other side of innovation: Solving the execution challenge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.