In mathematics, an inflection point is the place on a curve where the curvature changes from concave upward (positive) to concave downward (negative) or vice versa.
Andy Grove, former Intel CEO, gave the term a new relevance. In his management book, Only the Paranoid Survive, he wrote: “A strategic inflection point is the time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”
Grove borrowed a parallel term, “disruptive technology,” from business writer, Clayton Christensen. A disruptive technology is an innovation, very often appearing crude at inception, that can change or eliminate entire industries. The first horseless carriage must have seemed silly to buggy makers, just as the first kindle looked like a toy to brick-and-mortar bookstores.
A week after my first post on free online college classes, an article in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee, An elite school offers master’s degree online, suggests that we’ve already passed an inflection point and that online coursework is a “disruptive technology” that is destined to change higher education in ways we cannot yet grasp.
Online classes are nothing new; I took an early online programming class in 1998, with mixed results. Online graduate degree programs in business as well as software exist, many offered by private colleges. What’s different now is the scale.
Beginning in January, Georgia Tech will offer online master’s degrees in computer science at a cost of $6,600, compared to the $45,000 price tag for the same courses taken on campus. Some of the funding comes from AT&T which “will use the program to train employees and find potential hires.” Estimates of future interest in this degree run as high as 10,000 students a year, including international participants.
Because of Georgia Tech’s prestige and the ambitious nature of this undertaking, educators are watching closely. There is no guarantee of success for this particular program, but from the perspective of student loans alone, there is a huge need for innovation of this sort. The first producers of new technologies are not always the ones who succeed, but like the first makers of personal computers and ebooks, they define inflection points that change the world. Georgia Tech may well be doing the same thing.