For years, Silicon Valley has failed to breach the walls of higher education with disruptive technology. But the tide of battle is changing. A report from the front lines.
It will probably take a little while to digest. Cars and automobiles almost entirely killed the long-distance passenger train industry, for example, but railroads today carry more freight than ever, and it would be almost impossible to build automobiles if railroads did not exist to transport the raw materials. Similarly, TV did not replace radio, but merely diluted its influence. Older models often adapt and endure in significant if less important forms. As the platform wars commence and huge online courses grow in prominence, most of the first adopters won’t be American students forgoing the opportunity to drink beer on weekends at State U. Instead, they’ll be students like Bali, among the hundreds of millions of people around the world with the talent and desire to learn but no State U to attend. The initial MOOC statistics bear this out—according to Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, more people from Lithuania signed up for his Stanford class than attend Stanford itself.
Instead of trying to directly challenge American colleges—a daunting proposition, given the political power and public subsidies they possess—the new breed of tech start-ups will likely start by working in the unregulated private sector, where they’ll build what amounts to a parallel higher education universe. A few weeks after returning from the West Coast, I watched Eren Bali spend two hours in a Washington, D.C.-area conference room listening to government officials, regulators, and representatives of for-profit higher education corporations discuss the morass of accreditation rules and federal regulations that make it hard for entrepreneurs to compete directly with traditional schools. Finally, Bali raised his hand and politely said, in effect, I don’t understand why any of this matters. I can go online right now and get everything I need to learn—courses, textbooks, videos, other students to study with—for free. And if I need to know what someone else has learned, I can look at their Linked-In profile or their blog to find out.
At a certain point, probably before this decade is out, that parallel universe will reach a point of sophistication and credibility where the degrees—or whatever new word is invented to mean “evidence of your skills and knowledge”—it grants are taken seriously by employers. The online learning environments will be good enough, and access to broadband Internet wide enough, that you won’t need to be a math prodigy like Eren Bali to learn, get a credential, and attract the attention of global employers. Companies like OpenStudy, Kno, Quizlet, Chegg, Inigral, and Degreed will provide all manner of supportive services—study groups, e-books, flash cards, course notes, college-focused social networking, and many other fabulous, as-yet-un-invented things. Bali isn’t just the model of the new ed tech entrepreneur—he’s the new global student, too, finally able to transcend the happenstance of where he was born.
That’s when American colleges and universities will really start to feel the pain. Political pressure will continue to grow for credits earned in low-cost MOOCs to be transferable to traditional colleges, cutting into the profit margins that colleges have traditionally enjoyed in providing large, lecture-based college courses. At the same time, people with huge student loan burdens from overpriced institutions will be undercut in the labor market by foreign-born workers willing to work for less because they incurred no debt in getting valuable credentials in the parallel higher education universe. Colleges with strong brand names and other sources of revenue (e.g., government-sponsored research or acculturating the children of the ruling class) will emerge stronger than ever. Everyone else will scramble to survive as vestigial players.
At least, that’s what people are dreaming of in the valley. If history is any guide, some of them are going to be right.
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