The Future of College

I just watched this fascinating 30-minute interview from June 2012, discussing potentially dramatic innovations in higher education. The on-stage interview was part of the Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” series, and the host was the Journal’s legendary technology columnist, Walt Mossberg. The two guests were knowledgeable, brilliant, and well-spoken:

  • Salman Khan, creator of the Khan Academy web site (with its instructional videos)
  • John Hennessey, President of Stanford University

There’s a lot of serious change on the horizon. MIT and Harvard have teamed up to offer many of their courses online, for free, through EdX. Stanford has its own consortium of universities, also offering free courses online, called Coursera. These initiatives are called “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOC for short. My employer, Washington University, just announced a partnership with ten top universities to offer online courses–but not for free, and only for students who meet admissions criteria.

Khan and Hennessey describe several potential futures. For example, maybe some students could get a college degree without ever setting foot on a campus. Maybe others would do a hybrid degree, with some courses on campus and others over the Internet. Khan proposed the most radical change: maybe employers will stop treating elite college degrees as a certification of your ability to do a job. Instead, your abilities would be certified by an entity that is unattached to any college, and anyone can take any test to demonstrate mastery of a specific ability or topic. It doesn’t matter how you learn it–on a campus, at home, in an informal study group with a few friends. If you  pass, you would get a certificate that today’s digerati refer to as a “badge” (by analogy with boy scout merit badges). Khan talks about “separating out the teaching part of college from the certification part.”

Also see my post “Will the Internet Transform College?” from May 31, 2012.

What do you think the future will be?

5 thoughts on “The Future of College

  1. I read a story today about an announcement regarding the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, which is supposed to be fully open for students in 2015, Minerva is hoping to attract the same kind of intellectual firepower as far as students and professors as any Ivy League school, but at half the cost to attend. In addition, classes are all supposed to be accessible online. I also read today that the California State University system announced a pilot for $150 lower-division online courses at one its campuses. I’m not associated with Minerva or with the California State University system; I’m just interested in education, in general, and what is fascinating with all that I just mentioned — and with what you mentioned in your blog — is that the “business as usual” way of doing and thinking in higher education is being thrown out, much the same way people tossed away their Walkmans once the iPod burst onto the scene. The Millenial generation has a different way of learning, so perhaps these new models will be perfect for their mindsets. There will always be pluses or minuses, but that exists with anything. In the end, it will always be up to the student in terms of how much effort he or she puts into their education. But I think if education al models are made more accessible and, potentially, more cheaper — while still retaining quality– then all that is good for those who want to learn, but perhaps can’t afford it.
    As someone who is trying to figure out a way to make teaching creativity to high school students more accessible, I’m always in favor of trying creative ways to educate more people.

    1. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor famous for his concept of “disruptive innovation,” has written a book called DISRUPTING CLASS which argues for what you are suggesting: the business as usual model is at risk of falling apart completely. I think most of us agree that the elite brands like Harvard and MIT and Stanford will continue to exist. But maybe they will increasingly be viewed as a niche, luxury product, not really necessary but kind of nice to have if money is no object. Kind of like buying a Mercedes or Jaguar instead of a Nissan or Toyota. The Nissan works wonderfully and there’s no shame in owning it, but if you’ve got money to burn, why not get the Mercedes? It won’t get you to work any faster, but it looks cool. And, it helps you gain entre into the elite, upper class (it looks great in the parking lot of your yacht club). Fifty years from now, maybe people will think of “attending Stanford” in the same way. “You could have learned the same stuff at home for one tenth the price, but hey, it’s your own money.”

      I’m not at all convinced this will happen–I tend to believe there really is something special about an on-campus, four-year experience–but lots of people are thinking this way.

  2. MIT, Harvard etc will always be the leader of the band. However I believe employers will eventually be aware of the differences between different types of knowledge. This is a just phase, something new has turned up and the new criteria will be formed for evaluating the benefits of a certain education/course.

  3. I’m excited about all of the online and digital possibilities that technology bring to the world but hesitant to think that education or being educated is simply about gathering “badges” or degrees or any tangible thing. Education has until now been a fundamentally social enterprise and I wonder what this does to discourse, dialogue, and engagement with others? If we are learning everything online or via technology then what does the social piece of learning look like in this model? Where is the space for reading and understanding others?

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