How Soon Is Now? The End of the University As We Know It

The university as we know it is headed for extinction.

Imagine the system of U.S. higher education in 1960 – universities were awash in government money because of the Cold War; enrollments were surging because of the GI bill and the baby boom. The paradigm of undergraduate education was the four-year, full-time, residential college experience, best suited for unmarried 18-22 year olds who could delay entry into the workforce. The university was the Emerald City in the Land of Oz – a fortress of knowledge where truth was revealed to humble supplicants.

Compare that with the current educational landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately forty percent of undergraduate  students are older than 24. About half are classified as financially independent of parents. Forty percent attend college on a part-time basis. A huge percentage of students simply don’t have the time for the four-year, full-time, residential college experience that was the norm in 1960.

Simultaneously a bachelor’s degree has gotten a lot more expensive. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the average price of a four-year college education is 2.5 times what it was in 1980. During the same period, real wages for most Americans have been flat. People in the USA now need a college education just to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, but the cost of that education keeps going up. So more students go into greater amounts of debt to finance their educations.

As the traditional college model has become less convenient and more expensive, the opposite has happened to information. When I grew up, newspapers printed the news on paper, radio programs were broadcast over the air, and there were three TV channels. Then cable, satellite, and the internet completely disrupted the media industry. Today anyone can access almost any kind of news or entertainment at any time, and, perhaps even more importantly, anyone can create it – much of the content is user-generated. In many ways this transformation resembles Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press, which broke the monopoly on information that had existed in Europe for centuries.

The same is now happening to higher ed.

The Emerald City is being replaced by an information ecosystem that resembles a coral reef. There’s no moat, no wall, no gatekeeper controlling how the information is accessed or interpreted. It is open source and the architecture is scalable.

According to Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, worldwide there are 4 billion Google searches and 4 billion online video playbacks every day. Every second, someone uploads an hour of video to YouTube. These webpages, videos, and the ability to search them are free.

At this point you are probably thinking that 1) the internet is an unorganized and unreliable mess, and 2) undergraduate students still need the traditional university to organize, evaluate, and deliver educational content effectively.


People interested in learning have been migrating from free but unorganized educational online resources – the webpages that turn up in a Google search and the videos uploaded onto YouTube – to free organized information for several years. Now the movement is toward educational systems – housed at least in part online and frequently open-source – that offer convenient, affordable, and credentialed content mastery.

The simplest example of free organized information is Wikipedia, which started 2001. Wikipedia’s content is 100 percent user-generated.

A step up in terms of quality is MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which began in 2002 and currently has material from over 2,000 courses, such as classical mechanics.

Khan Academy, which began in 2006, now has over 3,000 video tutorials. Khan Academy’s motto is to provide a “free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”

The nonprofit educational foundation TedEd, a spinoff of TED, went live last month.

People can now use this free online content to learn anything, anywhere, anytime. There’s just one problem: how do you demonstrate what you’ve learned to others? If you walk into a job interview and say “I learned chemistry from Khan Academy,” the person on the other side of the table will simply shout “Next!” You need some sort of recognized, accepted credential signifying that you learned what you say you’ve learned.

Historically credentialing has been the function of the course credit and diploma offered by the traditional university. It has enabled universities to maintain an expensive monopoly on higher education, despite inroads by lower-cost but less prestigious for-profit institutions.

Until now.

Students who take the equivalent of an online self-paced correspondence course from the non-profit Saylor Foundation (motto: “education should be free”) and receive a certificate. So what, right? Students can then take an exam administered by the for-profit StraighterLine; if they pass they receive American Council on Education (ACE) credit, which then can be transferred to other educational institutions.

Still not impressed? This month, Saylor and StraighterLine began a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University to make college more accessible and lower the cost of completing a degree. The plan is to allow students to begin their college education at any of these four institutions; prospective students will know upfront the benefits and costs of each starting point.

A different method of unbundling undergraduate education was pioneered at Stanford by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig last fall. Thrun and Norvig taught a massive open online course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students. Students were ranked according to performance in the course and received a certificate upon completion.

This year, Norvig and Thrun started Udacity, which currently offers six free computer science courses and enrolls a total of 200,000 students. Udacity’s plan is to offer certification to students at an affordable cost.

A similar venture, MITxoffered its first free online course, on electrical engineering, this year. MIT has now partnered with Harvard to create edX, a $60 million nonprofit joint venture, to offer free online instruction worldwide. Like Udacity, edX will offer certificates demonstrating successful completion of courses for a small fee.

At this point, you might be thinking that these developments aren’t relevant, because you teach political science, or history, or English, not computer science. These innovations will affect you, if they haven’t already, in three ways.

First, higher education is headed toward a system of price discrimination that resembles a Starbucks menu. Elite universities with established brands will continue to draw students who have the necessary time and money for the traditional full-time, four-year campus experience. The mid- and low-tier brick-and-mortar schools will be forced, due to the increasing convenience and cost-pressure of open source alternatives, to redesign their curriculums or die. They will need to abandon uniform pricing for course credit so that they can hit as many price points as possible, and they will need to go after more undergraduate students who are older, employed full-time, and unwilling to come to campus three days a week between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Second, the transformation of the higher education market will force universities to better demonstrate that the product they are selling justifies the price at which they are selling it. Each item on the educational menu will need to clearly reflect “you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for” because of what open online courses will do to credentialing. Grade inflation is rampant in American higher education, and the massively scaled competition offered by open online courses can produce a credentialing system that is far better than what brick-and-mortar universities – even many of the most prestigious ones – are offering. For example, let’s say that Cal Tech gets 10,000 applications a year but admits only 1,000. You’re admitted, you enroll, and eventually you graduate at the top of your class. In the end, though, you are still 1 of only 10,000. Now let’s say that instead of going to Cal Tech, you take a computer science course from Udacity, or a whole set of them, along with 500,000 other people. You end up being the top student. Best of 500,000 is likely to be a lot more meaningful to an employer than best of 10,000, and you didn’t have to pay $200,000 in tuition, room, and board to prove it. Think what that’s going to do to the universities that aren’t Cal Tech but that (for now) charge $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

Third, instructors will have to pay greater attention to whether their teaching creates value for the student and the university. Massive open online courses are going to generate huge amounts of data on teaching and learning. They’ll be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of particular teaching methods much more easily than the compartmentalized classroom environment. The pedagogies that are developed and tested online will filter into the physical classroom, and anyone who is not interested in continuous improvement in their teaching will lose students to the people who are.

Perhaps more importantly, course content will move out of the physical classroom and onto the internet. Open source initiatives like MIT’s OpenCourseWare demonstrate that course content is the least valuable educational component that universities have to offer, so it’s simply given away for free. The more valuable forms of learning that cannot be easily replicated online – research, project design and execution, problem solving, peer-to-peer learning – will take over the classroom. It will be more important for students to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B than for an instructor to tell them that Point B is better than Point A. The lecture at the podium will cease to exist.

As it moves online, educational content will be created and delivered in a distributed manner. Both students and instructors will become accustomed to feeding it forward – they will locate and analyze what others have done, adapt it for their own purposes, and then make what they’ve created available for others to use in their own learning.

Instructors who are unwilling or unable to engage with content or students in this manner will be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately most PhD programs currently do not provide training in this pedagogy to the graduate students who will be entering the teaching profession.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the entities discussed above.Thanks to Sally Gomaa, members of the PeckNet, and Chana Motobu for their helpful comments. Any mistakes are the fault of my cats, who like to sit on my keyboard.

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