The Third Wave of Online Education

Why Disruption of Delivery - not Product - may be the Future

The First Wave

The first wave of online education meaningfully emerged in the mid-to-late 90’s, largely led by for-profit institutions.

While there were a handful of nonprofit players in the space at the time (e.g., both SNHU and Penn State went online in 1995), the early leaders were for-profit organizations like University of Phoenix, Bridgepoint Education, and Education Management Corporation (EMC), who all saw an untapped market demand for accessible education.

In many ways, this first wave was a disruption of delivery, rather than product, with early leaders modeling their online offerings off of existing on-campus or correspondence courses.

The Second Wave

The second wave of online education came at the tail end of the aughts into the mid-2010’s and was led by an emerging class of new nonprofit leaders.

Known today by many as the “Mega Universities,” SNHU, ASU, WGU, and others, all capitalized on a window-in-time created in large part by heightened federal regulation on the for-profit education space.

As the for-profits reeled from regulation, they were forced to reign in their marketing, revamp their operations, and collapse their breadth of program models to meet gainful employment requirements.

This was all the opportunity needed for a new class of online education players to emerge.

And yet still, this second wave was built on a disruption of delivery, not product, as these nonprofit players by-and-large took a similar approach to online course development, in many cases tapping the same learning management solutions and utilizing the same message-board-based approach as their for-profit peers.

The Third Wave

So what will The Third Wave be and when will it come?

If you’re following the trends, it seems almost everyone is convinced the the next wave in online education will come from a disruption of product.

Whether it’s micro-credentials, stackable credentials, workforce pathways, or short-form bootcamps, the vast majority of time, attention, and investment appears to be being made in new solutions that meaningfully change the product itself.

But if past disruption was driven by a shift in delivery, not product, why would The Third Wave be any different?

Perhaps a contrarian view, I believe there is a strong argument to be made that The Third Wave of Online Education could once again be driven by innovation in delivery, rather than the product itself.

So What Could This Third Wave Look Like?

At a time when 98% of Gen Z own smart phones, why are we delivering a learning experience that requires a laptop or desktop computer?

At a time when you can complete 100% of a program online - entirely asynchronously - why are we requiring a synchronous admission process that mandates students talk to us on the phone in order to enroll?

And when we can seamlessly track the progress of our online orders, why can’t we similarly track the progress of tracking down our transcripts, of our course registration, or even of our program progression itself?

In many ways our industry has failed to meaningfully keep up with consumer’s ever-expanding expectations and you have to wonder if The Third Wave of Online Education couldn’t once again be built on a disruption of delivery?

A college experience as seamless as Uber, as reliable as Amazon, and as aesthetically pleasing as AirBnB. Sure, it wouldn’t be a disruption in product, but it would be a serious improvement to delivery.

Context & Conclusion

This isn’t to say disruption in product isn’t both needed and coming.

Higher education’s obsession with the credit hour is almost certainly coming to an end, the market is increasingly embracing short-form degree-alternatives, and employers are loosening their grip on education requirements.

These factors combined create a very real storm of transformation that is built around the central idea that the product itself must change.

But if we allow ourselves to be consumed by this potential for product disruption, we may very well be missing the obvious reality that:

The Third Wave of Online Education, like its predecessors, could very well be built on disruption of delivery.

Editor’s Note

Like most things in life, this conversation seems to be more about a “yes and” rather than an “either or,” as it would almost certainly serve organizations best to approach this next wave in two-prongs.

As for when this next wave will come, only time will tell.

If we are to use Jim Collins’ framework from his book “How The Mighty Fall,” it would be fun to debate where the MegaU’s land on his 5 Stages of Decline. The answer would almost certainly change depending on whom you ask.

Hope you’re well!


About the Author

Seth is the Founder and CEO of Kanahoma, a San Diego-based education marketing agency. Operating at the intersection of beautiful brand creative and effective direct response marketing, Kanahoma partners with colleges and universities, education technology and service providers, as well as k-12 organizations.

You can learn more about Kanahoma at