Higher education is getting flattened

Lynn Russo Whylly's picture
UBTech 2014 logo - a national summit on technology and leadership in higher ed
Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A synopsis of a UBTech 2013 featured session by Mark Greenfield, director of the office of web services at University of Buffalo.


Today’s mass education system, which was built for the mass production economy of the 20th century, is inadequate for the demands of the new millennium. A complete paradigm shift will be required, and as higher education moves from a vertically integrated model to a horizontal model, there will be considerable disruption.

Here’s what I see as the future of higher education and some important trends going forward.

  1. Disaggregation, or unbundling. This unbundling started outside the classroom, where universities have taken housing or dining and let someone else manage it. What we’re starting to see now is the same unbundling happening in the classroom, shifting instruction from a vertically integrated market where the college provides everything to a horizontal model. Companies—not universities—are driving this, which raises questions about who creates the course content, how the course gets delivered, who grades the course, and who analyzes the quality of the course. That all used to be done by the university, but now companies are providing those services horizontally to several universities at the same time. Think about Coursera as the new course catalog. You’re not seeing courses taught by a single university, but rather, by dozens of universities. Coursera suggests that one day students could be earning upwards of one-third of their credits from outside sources such as MOOCs.
  2. Disintermediation. This means the elimination of an intermediary in a transaction, and it most notably has taken place to date in music and travel. When the band Nine Inch Nails released its album called ‘The Slip’, it didn’t work with a record label. Instead the band released the CD on its own. Imagine a world without record labels. Disintermediation has also happened to travel agencies. Could the same thing happen to higher ed where you could get college credentials accepted as valuable by employers that have nothing directly to do with a college campus? We’re already seeing that happen.
  3. Free agent faculty. What if you’re really good at teaching something but you’re not an educated teacher? The founders of Coursera and Udacity have already done this. Without working on a college campus, they’re going to get lots and lots of people taking their courses, and no one can argue that they’re not qualified, because they definitely are. So what happens if colleges no longer have the monopoly on credentialing and we start seeing free agent faculty? When I’m hiring a web developer, I will look at Github. It’s a place where coders go to trade code and comment on other people’s code. To me that carries more merit about the qualifications of a web developer than a degree from most institutions that are still teaching programming languages that are not real applicable to what we use in my web shop. Another interesting site is Degreed. It’s the idea of badges and credentials outside the diploma. We’re starting to see more of this happening, and higher ed institutions are not driving it. It’s driven by private sector entrepreneurs who see an opportunity.
  4. Disappearance of the credit hour. What happens when stuff learned matters more than time served? A bachelor’s degree is eight semesters of 15 credit hours, which add up to 120 credit hours. There’s a movement afoot in higher ed to look at how they might change the credit hour. One of the organizations leading the movement is the College for America out of Southern New Hampshire University. They offer flexible self-paced associate degree programs. At the end of the day, students are measured on 120 core competencies, and as soon as they reach that, they get their associates degree. That’s a completely different way to look at how students progress through a college career.

What if we could really make “mass” education become “my” education and came up with technology that allowed people to learn at their own pace? That is the direction higher ed is going. The train is leaving, Greenfield says, and if we want to survive, we must all get on board.

To hear this featured session from UBTech 2013, click here. You must be a registered user to access the video; however, registration is free.

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