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A Disrupted Higher-Ed System

The “disruption” of the higher-ed market is a popular refrain these days. Rising tuition prices and student debt have left many wondering if the current model is indeed broken and whether those like Harvard’s Clay Christensen are right when they say that innovations in course delivery will eventually displace established players.

What exactly those innovations will look like remains a matter of debate. One view from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, envisions a future in which every industry will be disrupted and “rebuilt with people at the center.”

In this recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Sandberg talked specifically about the gaming industry, which has been upended by the popularity of social-gaming venues, such as Words With Friends and Farmville.

But what if we applied her people-centered vision to higher ed?

While amenities and services on campuses have been redesigned in the last decade with students clearly at the center, the core of the academic experience for students today is almost exactly the same as it was for their parents decades ago. While other industries have been able to find productivity gains without sacrificing quality, on most college campuses we still have professors at the front of a room or at a table with an average of 16 students in front of them.

We all know that’s one of the key drivers of rising college costs. Higher ed is people intensive, and for many prospective students and their parents, the professor-centered academic experience is well worth the high price and will be for a long time. It’s one reason why high-quality institutions really have little to worry about.

But we also know that the traditional academic experience isn’t for everyone these days. The students we used to call “nontraditional” are now a majority, yet we have way too many colleges chasing after high-achieving 18-to-24-year-olds at the same time they are trying to keep up with the Jones—those institutions they aspire to be.

It’s among this vast group of aspiring colleges where the real disruption of the higher-ed market is likely to happen. The alternatives are already in play, with the likes of StraighterLine, the Khan Academy, and badges to certify skills.

Now, hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear another announcement that has the potential to chip away at the student market that is currently the lifeblood of colleges on the margins, in both quality and financial health.

Just look at the last month:

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it would create MITx, a self-service learning system in which students can take online tests and earn certificates after watching free course materials posted by the university.
  • StraighterLine, which offers self-paced introductory courses online, said that it would give students access to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and other similar tests, allowing them to take results to employers or colleges to demonstrate their proficiency in certain academic areas.
  • Apple introduced three free pieces of software that allow students to download or create textbooks, and that permit instructors to create a digital curriculum in iTunesU.

And then this week, the Stanford University professor who garnered plenty of press attention when he taught an online artificial-intelligence course to more than 160,000 students last year, announced he had given up his tenured position to focus on his start-up, Udacity, which offers low-cost online courses.

Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. “Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,” Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.

Taken together, those announcements portend one potential future of higher ed that’s more collaborative, social, virtual, and peer-to-peer—and where introductory courses are commodities offered free or close to free. That vision leaves room for a slice of traditional colleges to compete either by essentially moving down market or by validating such learning by being the gatekeeper at the end by offering capstone, upper-level courses and granting degrees.

Right now, the biggest hurdle to many of these new course-delivery ideas is the corner that traditional colleges have on the credential market. That right is conferred on them courtesy of the federal government’s student-aid system, built on accreditation.

But unless traditional colleges figure out a way to incorporate the new players and their ideas, such as MIT did recently, the innovators will figure out a way around the credentialing hurdle that will be acceptable to students, parents, and, most important, employers. And when they do, a part of the higher-ed market will be disrupted and rebuilt with students at the center.

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