By Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute
A recent article in the Washington Post began with the statement that today’s college students “may be part of the last generation for which ‘going to college’ means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors.” By using these three aspects of college life – packing up, dorm rooms, and tenured professors – the writer was able to clearly illustrate the ritualized process of traditional university education, setting the stage for major changes coming in the very near future.
In 2007 I released a paper on the future of education, culminating an 18 month effort to probe the likely evolution of a system that has become emotionally linked with many of our country’s and the world’s deficiencies.
I talked about what I saw as the coming iTunes form of education where courses from anywhere in the world could be easily created through a templated process, sent to a central distribution site, and easily distributed to students around the world. At no time had it occurred to me that iTunes (Apple) may be one of the key players in making it happen.
While the paper generated huge amounts of interest, the predictions of massive change happening within the following two years proved to be a few years too optimistic. That said, a revolution is coming.
As the disruptive forces of the Internet bear down on colleges and universities, everyone is beginning to feel the leading winds of this impending storm, but few have a clear view of the changes to come. Newspapers, travel agencies, yellow pages, and record labels are all industries that have been greatly affected by the Internet, and each foretell a different version of what may lie ahead.
College 2.0 will witness a massive peeling apart process. Learning will become separated from the classroom. Courses will be created organically and formed around an on-demand, any-time, any-place delivery models. Professors will declare their independence and work for multiple institutions rather than just one specific college. Accreditation will shift from the Institution to the course and to the individual. And textbooks, the ink-on-paper version that we know today, will all but disappear.
The granting of diplomas, that enormously powerful document that bestows standing and privilege on its recipients, will begin to erode as prospective students are confronted with a vast array of faster, better, cheaper “status” options.
Campuses, many of which have been built over the past two centuries, will begin a painful transformation, as they move from 19th century education factories with dormitories, sports teams, and great tradition, to a future that I will discuss below. Buildings will be remodeled, organizational charts will be rewritten, and the very notion of what a college is will be questioned every step of the way.
We are entering a grand age of experimentation. The biggest opportunity for colleges and universities lies in the unchartered territory outside of their current domain. The walls that have been built over many centuries to contain the universities are much like the fabled walls of Jericho. They are on the verge of “tumbling down.”
Let me begin with a disclaimer. I happen to be a big fan of colleges and the complicated systems they use for bringing value to society. I am also a fan of creating a better future and the two seem to be on an inevitable collision course.
Unlike most forecasts, this paper is as much about helping colleges survive as it is about predicting the forces that are intent on unraveling them.
Lessons from the Ancient World
During the time of the ancient Greek civilization, several mathematicians became famous for their work. People like Archimedes, Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy all brought new elements of thinking to society, furthering the field of math, building on the earlier work of Babylonian and Egyptian mathematicians.
A few generations later the Romans became the dominant society on earth. The one aspect of Roman society that was remarkably absent was the lack of Roman mathematicians. Rest assured, the scholarly members of Roman society came from a good gene pool and were every bit as gifted and talented as the Greeks, but Roman society was being held hostage by its systems. In this case, it was their numbering system – Roman numerals.
The feature that made Roman numerals so inferior was that each number lacked specific numeric positioning, making each number more of an equation than a single integer. The added layer of complexity prevented people from doing higher math.
Roman numerals were a system problem, and a huge one at that. They prevented an entire civilization from furthering the field of math and science.
Romans were so immersed in their numbering system that they had no clue that it was preventing them from doing even rudimentary math such as the adding of columns of numbers or simple multiplication or division, a feat still handled by abacus. It also prevented them from creating some of the more sophisticated banking and accounting systems which restricted academia from moving forward in areas of science, astronomy, and medicine.
Ratchet forward to today. We live in a society where virtually everything is different from the days of the Roman Empire. But what seems so counterintuitive to most is that we are even more dependent today on our systems than the Romans ever were. Most of these systems we take for granted – systems for weights and measurement, accounting, banking, procurement, traffic management, and food labeling. With each of these systems we are much like the Romans, immersed in the use of these systems to a point where we seldom step back and question the reasoning and logic behind them.
Our systems govern virtually every aspect of our lives. Much like fish not understanding what water is, we seldom step back to fully understand the context of the world around us.
The critical question we should be asking is, “What systems do we employ today that are the equivalent of Roman numerals, preventing us from doing great things?”
My contention is that our entire college and university system is the equivalent of Roman numerals. It is indeed preventing us from doing great things.
The Quest for a Higher Calling
Wikipedia defines education as the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to the next. Much like modern day monks transcribing the scrolls of our generation onto fresh sheets of papyrus, colleges have staked out their territory as the conveyors of wisdom and culture from generation to generation.
However, the laborious transcription work done by monks, was pushed aside in favor of a higher calling. As printing presses came onto the scene in the 1500s, the intensive human-based efforts were soon far too inefficient to compete. Similarly, colleges are about to find that their digital counterparts in the education realm are about to render their human-based teaching operations far too inefficient to compete.
Rest assured, the need to convey information from one generation to the next will still exist, but the professors, like the monks of the past, will be given a higher calling.
The writers of Star Trek often used the concept of a “prime directive” to refer to the overarching purpose or mission. If we were to formulate a prime directive for colleges, what would it be?
For colleges to survive and thrive, the coming years will find them searching for higher ground. Their struggle will be to transition themselves beyond regional objectives, political boundaries, and short-term thinking.
Instead, college will focus their considerable talent base on the challenges that lie ahead, capturing the salient points of understanding with each step of the journey. Much like an astronaut setting foot on a new planet, future colleges will be seen as the ever-vigilant explorers of the unexplainable, guiding us into worlds unrecognizable, creating doorways into a future that is unknowable.
Similar to the way the news media serves to assure a clear separation of powers in all areas of governance, one of the key roles for future colleges will be to save us from our primitive selves. They will become the champion of forward progress, the defender of what’s possible.
Just as the forces of tradition favor the status quo, the forces of next generation learning and understanding will favor the non-status quo. In short, colleges will become our checks and balance for the status quo.
So why are all of these changes starting to happen, and what are the fundamental drivers underlying these shifts? At the heart of these changes is a maturing base of Internet technologies connecting people and rewriting the rules for communication. This has resulted in a shifting base of cultural standards, speed of operations, and overall expectations.
As with many industries, universities have established themselves as the intermediaries, the gatekeepers between information and our minds. With information now abundant and free, the gatekeeper business model is quickly becoming unworkable.
Here are a few of the cultural forces behind the changes that lie ahead:
1.) Pricing themselves out of existence: Students and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford college, forcing them to be more pragmatic in their decisions:
• Nationally, tuition and fees have risen 439% since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while median family income has risen only 147%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education)
• 69.2% of private colleges reported that loan availability for their students and parents has been negatively affected by the economic downturn. (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities)
• In October 2008, nearly 60% of surveyed high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons; 14% changed their focus to a two-year college; 16% put their college searches on hold. (MeritAid.com)
2.) Customer perceived value: Outcomes are defining the perceived value of college education.
• The number of college graduates who were out of work hit a record high of 1,413,000 in November 2008, as business and professional services jobs and financial services jobs experienced record staff reductions. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
• For years now, women have been earning more college degrees than men. That trend is accelerating. The biggest difference isn’t so much who starts college, but who finishes. Men drop out at much higher rates. (Chicago Tribune)
• An August 2009 study released by SRI International for the U.S. Dept of Education concluded that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (NY Times)
3.) Cultural shifts: The perceived value is a core component of a college’s reputation, and that reputation is being continually re-defined in online communities.
• 81% of Americans age 18 and over use the Internet. (Harris Poll)
• On average, 245 million word-of-mouth conversations occur in the U.S. daily via e-mail, IM/text messaging or chat rooms/blogs, and 35% of advice givers in online conversations fall within the 13 to 17 age bracket. (Keller Fay Group)
• 64% of college student Internet users consider word of mouth the most useful type of advertising. (Alloy Media + Marketing)
• Many of the top attributes that teenagers value in a brand — community, collaboration, co-creation, empathy, real story and meaning — relate to authenticity. (Ypulse)
4.) Disruptive technology: Online education is set to overtake traditional education.
• Today a full 80% of colleges employ some form of online education, and the number of students who choose online education is growing rapidly. From 500,000 online students in 2002 to 3.9 million in the fall of 2007. (eMarketer)
The type of employees that companies want to hire is constantly forcing colleges to adapt their curriculum. The interface between college outputs and corporate inputs is poorly meshed and in a constant state of flux.
To complicate matter even more, the output of colleges is “terminally flawed humans.” And as every college knows, the caliber of students entering the system plays a critical role in the caliber of students exiting the system.
Beyond statistical numbers that we can hang our collective hats on, there are a number of other social shifts to consider.
1. The ‘Good Enough’ Revolution: While most colleges are striving the “be the best,” most consumers are opting for a solution that is “good enough.”
Keynoting at an online publishers conference last October, New York University new-media professor Clay Shirky shocked the audience of producers and editors when he said, “Don’t believe the myth of quality.”
“When it comes to the future of media on the Web,” Shirky warned, “resist the reflex to focus on high production values. We’re getting to the point where the Internet can support high-quality content, and it’s as if what we’ve had so far has all been nice—a kind of placeholder—but now the professionals are coming,” Shirky said. “That’s simply not true.”
Similarly, an emerging area of the software industry has given birth to “duct tape programmers,” programmers who produce code and bug fixes without all the trimmings.
Traditional thinking presupposes that great quality education can only be delivered by a topical expert in the front of a classroom. With new SRI International research that suggests students learn more from online learning than classroom education, the stage is being set for next generation “good enough” courseware.
2. The Rise of the Community College: Community colleges today are booming. Nationally, 1,200 community colleges currently enroll nearly 50% of all the undergraduates in the United States with over 6 million students currently in the system. Even though the cost of attending community colleges has been climbing, it still amounts to roughly a third of the cost for four-year institutions. Additionally, a growing number are now offering four year degree programs.
The largest community college in the US is Miami Dade College with over 170,000 students. In the fall of 2009 they were faced with an influx of 33,000 new students, a crowd so large that it severely stressed out classroom space, parking spaces, and teaching staff to handle the new arrivals. Approximately 30,000 could not get into the classes they wanted this fall; about 5,000 others were shut out completely.
Miami Dade is not alone. Community colleges across the US have been reporting record years fueled by high levels of unemployment, easily obtainable loans, and a sense that community college education is “good enough” to find another job. It’s a smaller commitment – smaller in terms of money, admission requirements, academic achievements, travel and relocation.
Much of the appeal is the hands-on nature of some of the coursework. Auto repair, machine shop, carpentry, CAD, filmmaking, and audio engineering are but a few of the courses that prepare students for specific jobs, often without the requirement of taking courses that they struggle with.
3. Scalable Professions: Who in your mind is the nation’s most famous college professor? If you are struggling to answer this, you’re not alone.
In contrast, who in your mind is the most famous radio talk show host? The most famous newspaper columnist? Or the most famous cartoonist? Most people have a much easier time with these questions.
So why are radio talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, and cartoonists more famous than college professors? The answer lies in one word – “syndication”. Their works have been syndicated across the country, sometimes around the world, and many have created a significant business operation that is based on their personal reputation and their cumulative body of work.
Radio talk show hosts are more famous than the radio stations they are heard on. Many newspaper columnists are more famous than the newspapers their articles show up in.
Today’s education systems do not allow for that same type of scalability. Professors are tied to a single institution and their sphere of influence is limited to the walls of that organization. The most famous people in colleges tend to be their presidents or their athletic coaches.
Yes, there are always exceptions, and some professors have won Nobel Prizes or garnered national fame through a best-selling book, or nationwide scandal. But in nearly all of these cases, their fame has resulted because of their work outside of the university.
Similar to the way “articles” have been freed from the newspaper, professors and their courses will soon be freed to expand beyond the walls of a single university.
4. Scalable Courses: In much the same way that iTunes and YouTube have created standardized formats for organically generated music and video content, a new system will arise from the Internet that enables the creation and distribution of organically generated courseware.
Most universities look at entry-level courses such as Econ 101, or Chemistry 101, or Sociology 101 as standardized “commodity” courses necessary to prep students for the meatier subjects that will follow. Very often the teaching of these courses has been turned over to teaching assistants and grad students.
With many of these courses being little more than packaged commodities, they can easily be repackaged and distributed via the Internet. In a globally competitive environment, the best media presentations will naturally rise to the top.
Companies such as Curriki, Moodle, Connexions, Wikiversity, Blackboard, and the Open Courseware Consortium have all recognized the opportunity associated with this kind of online educational offering. The one currently getting the most traction is the Australian-based Moodle, currently boasting over 26 million users and over 2.6 million courses.
In spite of their progress, Moodle still lacks the web-based templated interface necessary for explosive growth. They also lack the web-based distribution system that allows anyone on the street to take their courses.
5. One-way Information is Out: Communication technology today is designed around the two-way flow of information. People are no longer satisfied or trusting of one-way information systems. They want to participate, contribute, and take ownership of content.
Because of the restrictive nature of printed books, we will begin to see dramatic changes in what a next-generation book is. The Amazon Kindle and Sony book reader are paving the way for what comes next..
Where once a customer would passively read and, hopefully, absorb a book, every volume in the future will be more akin to an online forum, with authors, experts and other readers available to discuss and answer questions on almost every important book ever written.
6. “Your Education is Now Complete” – Who is it that came up with the notion that someone’s education is ever finished? This is the single biggest flaw in our system today.
One of the core principals of business is to never sever ties with good customers. So why is it that colleges hand their graduates a diploma, dissolving all formal relations with them? Clearly the educational needs do not end, and the student’s allegiance to the institution does not end, yet all income streams are broken.
The biggest failure point here is that colleges need to charge unreasonably high tuition rates for the short duration of the student-college association, when the payments could easily be spread out over a lifetime. The fact is that most students continue to pay off their student debts over their lifetime with only distant memories of what they learned. An educational mortgage paid over a lifetime needs far more than a short-term education for collateral.
7. The Credit Fallacy – Colleges currently grant credits for demonstrated competency at the end of a course. Yet, most graduates place high value on the “educational experience,” the things that happen outside the classroom that usually have little or nothing to do with their academic studies.
We currently have very little understanding of the economics of knowledge, and virtually no understanding of the economics of an experience.
The fallacy being perpetuated is that since colleges do not offer credits for the experiences, experiences have no perceived value. Yet the experience is one of the key differentiators between a campus-based and online education.
The College Experience
Colleges and Universities carry with them considerable inertia. They have long-standing traditions, huge alumni networks, solid brands in the minds of consumers, and are more durable than corporations with many having lasted centuries and still going strong. Most have integrated themselves into their respective communities with multiple funding tentacles, many with massive State-funded budgets, and others with intense fundraising operations that extend around the world.
People attend colleges for many reasons including a desire for a better job, a sense of personal accomplishment, to improve their resume, status and prestige, build relationships, and to have fun. However, all of these reasons boil down to one overarching motivation – a quest for a better life.
Over the years colleges have evolved from a simple place of learning into a vast array of experiences. In reality, classrooms and teachers are only a tiny portion of attending college.
Touch points for the college experience include:
- Social Circles
- Writing Papers
- Job Interviews
- and much more...
Ironically though, most of these touch points have been downplayed as “all that crap that happens outside the classroom.” College friends, parties, social events, and all the other “stuff” provides many more of the ingredients for college being a life changing experience than all the fact-cramming lectures could ever hope to achieve. Yet credits are only given for completed courses.
Typically, young people begin the process at age of 18 and exit between the ages of 22-24. As they leave, they are not only better educated, but also more mature, with a new circle of friends, and a cadre of stories that will frame their thinking for the rest of their lives.
Any person fighting a war understands that the outcome of the battle is highly dependent upon the caliber of people standing next to them. Similarly, the outcome of the college experience is heavily dependent upon the caliber of students involved.
Over the years, the “rules of the game” have been erroneously written to exclude the value of the experience, thereby giving undue advantage to both low-cost and minimal-experience providers. Students are simply asking, “What’s the quickest way to get a diploma?”
The Value of the Struggle
The college process today has been designed around helping students transition from coddled family life to contributing members of society, self reliant and confident in the choices they will make.
They graduate with a complex set of experiences that have taken place against a backdrop of scholarly moments in a classroom.
This quest to achieve greater understanding cannot be achieved by simply reading books and taking courses. It can only be realized through the struggles involved in a personal journey – a journey that requires far more than cognitive reasoning, but a grasp of the situation combined with skepticism, deductive interpretation, complex problem solving, and much more.
There is great value in the struggle. Those who do not struggle gain only surface knowledge to ply forward.
Enduring some of life’s greatest challenges can generate far more wisdom than 10,000 books on the subject. Is learning about famines ever as good as personally experiencing one? Is a class on bankruptcy and foreclosure ever the same as having personally experienced one? An individual who has to personally fought their way through a lawsuit, a bank failure, corporate mutiny or dramatic downturns in business derives far more valuable experiences than any textbook synopsis. Yet no institutions currently grant credit for this type of experience.
An Institution under Attack
While only a few leading-edge indicators are giving off signals, colleges are under attack. To the big institutions, the attacks only seem like irritating mosquitoes providing more of an annoyance than anything serious to be concerned about. But rest assured, a relentless wave of seriously larger mosquitoes are now airborne.
Much like Henry Ford’s “control everything” approach to building cars at the River Rouge Plant where raw materials were brought into one end and finished cars rolled out the other end, colleges have maintained tight control over virtually every aspect of the academic food chain.
Professors are carefully recruited, classroom times and schedules are thoroughly planned, courses are tightly prepared, degrees are strategically framed around in-house talent, and academic accomplishments are meticulously positioned to help brand the experience.
For this type of system, the days are numbered.
Rest assured, the coming wars on colleges are not being waged by societal misfits or some rogue band of college haters. Instead, they will come from some of our most admired companies.
Profile of an Attacker
Many colleges teach courses on the free enterprise system and scrutinize the great battles in corporate America, but few have ever been involved in one.
Once a college course is converted into online education it becomes a commodity. And, as a commodity, it can be reengineered with better graphics, better audio, improved styling, delivered through hand-held devices, and marketed more effectively to different demographic groups.
Corporations will quickly invent a faster, better, cheaper model for delivering college education.
Colleges are like slow moving whales about to get attacked by saltwater piranhas. While department heads in colleges are off studying the mating rituals of Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, corporate managers are working day and night, ruthlessly focused on opening new markets and uncovering new revenue streams. The pace and intensity of the work is radically different.
The attacks will first take on the appearance of partnerships for handling the IT infrastructure, and the distribution and marketing of courses, but will quickly deteriorate into the tail wagging the dog.
Those attacking colleges, albeit indirectly, will be companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and IBM. Many colleges already have working relationships with these companies.
Colleges have long enjoyed the government-sanctioned protections of accreditation and degree-granting ability. This too is about to come under attack. Companies are playing for major stakes, and very little is off-limits in corporate America.
What’s at stake is the possible development of a singular website capable of creating and distributing the vast majority of all courses in the world. It has the potential for becoming the largest and most influential website in the entire online universe.
In business terms, the online education arena has the potential to connect every living person on the face of the earth and become the largest and most profitable company in the world. That’s what’s at stake.
For colleges that get the lifeblood sucked out of them, victims of collateral damage, it’s not that the corporate world has set out to destroy them. Rather, as the intensity for gaining new market share heats up, the gloves come off, and the ensuing wake that follows will leave behind a tidal wave of destruction.
Even though learning technologies will ascend to the realm of the virtual world, there will still be interface devices that connect digital learning with the human mind. In this section I will focus on five disruptive technologies to give you a sense of the ingenuity about to be unleashed. There will be far more, perhaps hundreds of new categories, and thousands of such devices.
• The Rapid Courseware Builder: At the heart of the college revolution will be a simplified process that allows people around the world to create courses on topics they know. Envisioned as a smooth, fill-in-the-blanks templated process, the courseware builder will carefully step courseware producers through the design, build, and launch phases of each new course.
Courses will be structured around a unique set of standards that include course length, tagging, evaluations, modality, language, demonstrated competency, record keeping, and much more.
• Student Profiler & Recommendation Engine: Each new day gives rise to a student with a slightly different mood than the day before. Over time a student’s goals will change, the subjects they are interested in will change, and their top priorities will change. For this reason, we will begin to see a number of “smartware” offerings designed to get inside the head of the student and anticipate what they’d like to do next.
The ultimate profiler and recommendation engine will forever keep the students engaged, in a constant state of anticipation for the next amazing course to appear before them. Each day will be like Christmas morning where they can’t wait for the wrappings to be torn from the packages.
• The Courseware Tablet: What the Kindle is to books, the courseware tablet will be to education. In much the same manner that book readers will soon make the ink-on-paper version of books a rare commodity, a new category of course-taking gadgets will soon hit the marketplace.
I use the word “tablet” because these will be highly flexible, portable devices capable of working with a wide range of inputs and outputs. They will enable users to simultaneously create hand drawn sketches; give voice commands; take tests; and engage in video capturing, editing, and viewing. They will even offer analytical tools for students to study the world around them. In addition, each will come with a direct feed to experts in the field who can answer virtually any question on any topic.
The device will help define the courseware, and the courseware will help define the device. Several products will enter the marketplace, but the advantage will go to the design group that truly understands the needs and working environments of the evolving next generation student.
• Personal Coaching Devices: What would it be worth to have Warren Buffet looking over your shoulder and helping you with your stock picks? Or perhaps you may wish to have Jack Welch sitting next to you during a tough business negotiation.
This is exactly the type of service companies will be offering with what I see as a new category of personal coaching devices. As enlightening as this may sound for challenges in the business world, these tools will also be used to mentor students.
Traditionally, teachers have been trained to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate on a specific topic. But students often have great difficulty extracting the core principals from an abstract classroom environment.
By adding a video feed to a pair of glasses and connecting it to a smartphone like the iPhone, Android or Pre, users will be able to have a personal coach whispering in their ear as they struggle with a variety of difficult situations, learning valuable lessons at the exact time and place most crucial to cement a particular learning experience.
Personal coaches will also be used to pose problems that, once solved, become credit worthy. They will help direct students during their travels abroad to search out specific points of interest, give background history of cultural events, and assist on difficult research projects.
Rather than a sage on stage, this becomes a sage on demand with an endless array of educational opportunities associated with it.
• Augmented Reality Simulators: Augmented reality isn’t new. The technology has been used for years in military projects as well as in showcase displays such as museum exhibit and trade-show demos. The yellow first-down line superimposed on televised football games is an example of augmented reality.
Enabled by GPS, mapping data from the likes of Google and the accelerometer technology in modern phones, augmented reality involves overlaying data on your environment. Imagine walking around a city and seeing it come to life with reviews of the restaurants you walk past and Wikipedia entries about the sights you see.
One of the newest apps comes from Yelp, an iPhone guide to local restaurants, bars, and merchants. Load it up and you will notice a button labeled “monocle” in the right-hand corner. Hit it and the screen displays a live feed from the phone’s camera, showing exactly what’s in front of you — with one big difference. Aim the camera at a local storefront and Yelp superimposes a star rating on the image. Use Monocle in a hot dining neighborhood, for instance, and point it at every restaurant for a quick appraisal of the best food in the area.
The potential for educational apps using augmented reality are truly mindboggling. EMT training for disaster scenarios, police training for bomb and hostage situations, and military training for handling various forms of combat can all be conducted in lifelike detail without having to subject first-timers to unfamiliar situations.
Disruptive Business Models
Most businesses know how to manage employees remotely, but colleges have a different set of problems when managing students from a distance.
Online courses will evolve from stage-one webcasting and video to scalable, interactive products with global distribution. In short, courses will become commodities and colleges as well as other distribution companies will compete on price.
While some organizations will strive to become the Wal-Mart of low-priced college courses, most colleges will try to redefine their niche, re-branding themselves around their own unique offering. In most cases, however, the price differential will be so extreme that most will find themselves in a bidding war, unable to compete.
At the same time, the commoditization of courses will lend itself to many other business models. Many new variants will come with initial claims of producing faster, better, cheaper students that are better equipped for the challenges ahead. But the fluid nature of the newly emerging learning environment will leave most without a good long-term comparison of proven effectiveness. Here are a few examples of creative business models I see coming out of the woodwork:
1. Courseware Aggregator Model: On a certain level, colleges are in the aggregation business. The current business model has been built around aggregating such things as talent, students, courses, credits, and experiences.
Online systems for aggregation have made it easy for other organizations to compete, causing colleges to lose control of small pieces of their operation. As an example, Apple’s iTunes recently launched a service called iTunes U to begin aggregating online courses. If you think this is some casual experiment in the area of courseware aggregation, think again. In October 2008, Apple hired Dr. Joel Podolny, the Dean of Yale University’s School of Management, to run the new Apple University.
I predict that sometime over the next two years we will read a headline that someone will have graduated from college having taken all of their courses on an iPhone. Yes, it will probably be a publicity stunt on Apple’s part, but the accomplishment will pave the way for many other innovations.
Others will follow Apple’s lead. The problem with this model as it exists today is that most existing online courses don’t lend themselves well to the online world’s appetite for smaller, faster bites of education.
2. Credit Bank Model: Excelsior College in Albany, NY is offering a service called a Credit Bank to aggregate college credits. This service is designed for both enrolled and non-enrolled students, and serves as a way to consolidate any college-level credits into a single master transcript for employment or educational purposes. The Credit Bank will also document IT certifications from Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, SAS, Oracle, CompTia, and Sun Microsystems. It logs credits gained through the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) as well as the DSST Exam Program. In addition, they have a system for evaluating other training and experiences for college credits.
Companies outside of academia will view this as a unique opportunity. Some will even develop their own version of global credit banks that accept credits from organizations around the world.
3. Open Accreditation Model: As a way to circumvent today’s restrictive accreditation systems, a new breed of virtual accreditation systems will spring to life, each offering a new set of standards backed by some very credible names.
To many, our current systems for accreditation are the modern day equivalent to Roman numerals – slow, stodgy, and built around rules that are steeped in tradition. A system ripe for remodeling.
Some will offer accreditation to the courseware producers, others to the course itself. Using algorithms similar to Google’s page rank system that determines the credibility of webpages, open accreditation systems will take into account such things as the student’s evaluation of the course, the caliber of the student making the evaluation, the number of people attempting vs. the number of people completing the course, credentialed endorsement of a course from organizations like IEEE or the American Chemical Society, and much more.
4. Homeschooling Your College Education: The number of homeschoolers across the US has been mushrooming, with over 2 million students between the ages of 5 and 17 being trained outside of the traditional private and public education systems. At the same time, homeschooling systems have become far more sophisticated, with some formed around neighborhood associations, set curriculums, and regular classroom hours.
Online courses are already allowing students to structure their days more freely, take courses from remote locations, but in most cases credits still need to be channeled through a single institution. In the coming years we will see far more flexible models emerge that give students the same latitude as homeschoolers see today.
5. Future Admissions Model: As colleges become more virtual, one of the most hotly debated topics will be how to restrict admissions to preserve the brand.
People tend to place high value on that which is most difficult to achieve. Our most revered people are those who have run triathlons, climbed Mt Everest, or won a Nobel Prize. The scarcity of these achievements gives them their value. In a similar fashion, colleges that set the bar for admissions sufficiently high, make acceptance a rare honor. This has been the traditional route for keeping their perceived value high.
However, the scarcity created in the admissions process has created a delicate balance in a supply and demand equation that can easily be thrown into disarray if too many changes are made to it. As an example, an MIT management course offered through iTunes for $99 will cause the perceived value of all other similar management courses to drop to $99.
Further complicating the admissions process will simply be the question – “Admission to what?” Much of a university’s perceived value comes from the caliber of students and professors that students interact with. But as institutions become more virtual in nature, personal contact with others becomes less tangible, and the perceived value of the branded experience drops.
Most colleges will still have to maintain a high admissions standard, but we will see a tremendous amount of experimentation around re-defining the university experience, re-defining what constitutes a high caliber student, and the interactive elements that constitute the branded experience.
6. Research = Courseware Model: Initially, courseware producers will focus on translating existing classroom courses into online education. Currently, most colleges are just taking the baby step of webcasting an existing course. 2nd and 3rd generation courseware will involve everything from sophisticated videos, to animations, to dynamic three dimensional charts and graphs, to interactive elements that engage the student on a very personal level. Some courses will be reproduced multiple times around distinctly different learning styles.
Existing courses will become an increasingly competitive battleground as established bases of knowledge are turned into scalable, mass-market products that are no longer dependent upon the involvement of the instructor.
In business terms, traditional courses will enter the competitive “red ocean” battlefield and first tier research universities will begin searching for the moral high ground of “blue ocean” strategies to better distinguish themselves from the pack. This new moral high ground will be formed around the research that they are involved in.
Each new piece of research will lend itself to a series of courses that are unique to their institution. Students will be drawn to universities to become involved in cutting edge research projects, and the research will become the branded product offering that generates higher and higher percentages of the institution’s income streams.
Research will be funded by foundations, corporations, and government grants and the courses produced will be increasingly protected by intellectual property.
7. Lifetime Membership Model: The commoditization of courses will lead to lower and lower income streams. As a way to compensate, colleges will begin offering lifetime memberships that students will pay voluntarily on a monthly basis, many for the rest of their lives.
The perceived value of a college membership will be determined by interactive events, participative projects, and ongoing networking opportunities within the university structure.
Long after graduation, students remain loyal to their alma mater, and their need for further education never ends. As pricing pressures reduce income streams short term, colleges will have to shift gears quickly.
Alumni groups, professional associations, and social networks will all be tapped to help form a meaningful membership offering. For most institutions, the membership income will grow into their primary form of financial support.
8. Educational Colony Model: Existing campuses are about to undergo a radical transition. The demand for classroom space will dwindle as online courses replace the need to be present in a classroom. The financial weight of maintaining facilities will cause colleges to look for new options to help offset the burden.
One unique option will be that of an educational colony where corporations and other organizations work hand-in-hand on projects that also serve as learning experiences. Some of this already exists, but usually in off-campus locations and under exceptional circumstances. The Colony will be designed around a far more symbiotic relationship with students earning money while they learn, and companies gaining access to talent in a non-traditional work environment.
Often times colony projects will be formed around grant-funded research where the research results in the formation of a new company. In other situations, Colonies will be asked to solve specific problems of national interest or specific to a corporation.
The Colony concept is virgin territory, and Universities will undergo considerable experimentation before they understand the full range of possibilities.
Most of us have great difficulty translating ideas of what the future holds into useful stories and concepts. For this next section, I have chosen to describe the upcoming changes in terms of scenarios. Each gives a brief description of one element of change, explaining how it will unfold and what the likely consequences will be.
Scenario #1: An iTunes-like business releases an online courseware developer’s package that enables experts from around the world to create their own courses and make money from every sale. The courseware developer’s kit enables courses to be produced quickly in a standardized 60 minute format with a variety of media inputs. Courses can be tagged with approvals by institutions, rated by students, and framed around a personalized recommendation engine.
In this scenario, course offerings mushroom, first to millions, then tens of millions, and eventually hundreds of millions, all within a short 2-3 year timeframe. Early adopters will include trade associations, corporations, and foreign students. Private and public colleges will follow with each institution developing different policies for working with the new courseware.
Initially, courses will be dry and uninspiring, but a few will draw rave reviews and considerable attention. Later iterations will be filled with imagination and compelling content.
Scenario #2: Tenured professors will break their alliance with their current institution and begin freelancing their courses. They will establish themselves as accredited instructors and begin producing branded courseware that is distributed throughout the world.
Each of these rogue professors will work as guest lecturers, traveling from college to college, promoting their own line of courseware, learning camps, books, coaching, and more.
Many will rise in status to the level of “celebrity professors” running multi-million dollar business enterprises.
Scenario #3: Courseware rating systems will be developed to add integrity to the rapidly evolving system. Truth and accuracy will be an ongoing challenge in courseware creation, but this is nothing new.
A high percentage of what is taught in classes today is theoretical, ranging from theories of gravity, to theories of evolution, to music theory. None of these topics end up being 100 percent provable, and so from the standpoint of passing muster with a rigidly governing truth authority, none of these topics could be included.
In addition, virtually every aspect of society has its own version of truth – religious truths, scientific truths, legal truths, etc.
For this reason, rating systems will need to be structured as a checks-and-balance system where individual groups, colonies, or other rating services can create their own central truth authority and place tags of approval or disapproval on courses. These tags will be a central feature of the search criteria used by a smart student profiler and courseware recommendation engine.
Scenario #4: Colleges that focus on research will be able to leverage their research projects by developing a series of new courses around various aspects of the research. Each project will essentially radiate new courses, and through the attention gained in other online mentions, the research will attract many new students. Government and corporate grants will fund the research, and universities will build additional revenue streams through courseware development.
Tech transfer efforts will be aided by the courseware as well. Courseware will become a broadcast medium through which others will learn about new technologies as well as related opportunities.
Scenario #5: College campuses will transition into educational colonies. The term “colony” is used to describe a grouping of activities held together under a common theme, and in this scenario the overarching control of colleges will be diffused into multiple entities of common interest, each free to operate as autonomous enterprises.
Regimented semester and quarterly scheduling will be scrapped in favor of project-based learning and other activities. Early stage projects will involve team-based learning experiences. Later stage projects will morph into hands-on business and corporate operations where students “earn as they learn.”
While foundational learning will still be a prerequisite to many of the projects, students will work their way through required courseware prior to entering a project.
Universities will brand themselves through their corporate relationships and the types of projects students can become involved with.
Dormitories will be turned into something akin to short-stay hotel operations, with students staying anywhere from one night to several years.
Most classroom buildings will be remodeled into project spaces. Some classrooms will be used as meeting space, courseware testing centers, and guest lecture halls.
Scenario #6: College sports teams will transition into colony teams that are fully integrated into the colony experience.
Each team will run as an independent business operation, operating more as farm clubs for professional sports leagues rather than college teams. Where possible, team members will receive minor league salaries as well as credits for their athletic involvement.
As a governing body, the NCAA will morph into a new type of organization reflecting the changing nature of the league. A variety of academic, residential, and age-related rules will be rewritten to coincide with new social norms.
Scenario #7: Education colonies will create a lifelong relationship with their members. Rather than the traditional college-student relationship, universities will experiment with developing a branded-membership that encompasses both local and distant members.
Since the number of young people setting foot on campus is dropping and the demand for ongoing education is increasing, universities will expand their reach, and in doing so, greatly extend their influence.
As an example, MIT may create a branded MIT Colony Membership that costs $1,000 a month. This membership will enable people to be part of the MIT experience; receive access to all MIT courseware for free; participate in MIT research projects, clubs, and social networks; sell courseware under the MIT label; attend sporting events for free; bid on MIT work projects; receive invitations to exclusive events; and obtain one-on-one coaching from some of the world’s most talented people.
Scenario #8: Colonies will begin experimenting with higher and higher achievement levels. In recognition of learning that will take place over a lifetime, degrees and diplomas will be created for extreme and super extreme levels of learning. Masters and PhDs will only be junior-level accomplishments on this new rating scale.
With learning made easy and expanded over a lifetime, colleges will be able to capitalize on new ways for individuals to differentiate themselves from the masses. Diplomas will become as individualized as the accomplishments they reflect.
These uber-diplomas will become an ongoing driver for continued involvement and serve as an enduring revenue stream for the institution.
The Prime Directive
I will close by once again touching on the concept of a prime directive for colleges and universities.
Until now, students have been motivated to attend college for very selfish reasons. They are looking for prestige, status, and jobs that pay lots of money. It is my contention that the “good life” motivation is far too shallow for the world that lies ahead.
Rather than a world with people fighting people, the true battles that lie ahead will test us on every conceivable level. On the grandest of scales, we will find ourselves confronted with forces larger than our entire solar system, and on the tiniest of scales, nanotechnology and sub-atomic particles will confound us with challenges we never dreamed could exist. These battles will require far more than brilliant minds, personal tenacity, and military might.
The students of tomorrow will need to be prepared for a higher calling. This higher calling will be to pre-empt crises before they occur, anticipate disasters before they happen, and solve some of mankind’s greatest problems, starting with the problem of our own ignorance.
Much like a person walking through a dark forest with a flashlight that illuminates but a short distance ahead, each step forward gives a new perspective by adding light to what was previously dark. The students of tomorrow will be our bigger flashlights.
Until now, ours has been a dance with the ordinary. History shows us that we are immersed in cycles, systems, and patterns that repeat again and again. Tomorrows history books will show us that all patterns are made to be broken, all cycles waiting to be transformed.
Colleges will need to position themselves on the bleeding edge of what comes next. We will always need the backward-looking to understand where we have come from, but a new breed of visionaries, bestowed with unusual tools for preempting disasters, will become our most esteemed professionals.
Future colleges will become our checks and balance for the status quo.
Perhaps a more appropriate Prime Directive should be phrased like this: “Preparing humanity for worlds unknown, preparing our minds for thoughts unthinkable, and preparing our resolve for struggles unimaginable.”
By Thomas Frey