The Disruption of Higher Education


Nathan Harden sees the future of higher education in America — and it’s very much like the future that I see for Virginia’s colleges and universities –except in this essay, “The End of the University as We Know It,” published in The American Interest, he describes it better. Here are some excerpts:

Resist or not, major change is coming. The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

How do I know this will happen? Because recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information. …

The higher-ed business is in for a lot of pain as a new era of creative destruction produces a merciless shakeout of those institutions that adapt and prosper from those that stall and die. Meanwhile, students themselves are in for a golden age, characterized by near-universal access to the highest quality teaching and scholarship at a minimal cost. …

Prestigious institutions, especially those few extremely well-endowed ones with money to buffer and finance change, will be in a position to dominate this virtual, global educational marketplace. The bottom feeders—the for-profit colleges and low-level public and non-profit colleges—will disappear or turn into the equivalent of vocational training institutes. Universities of all ranks below the very top will engage each other in an all-out war of survival. In this war, big-budget universities carrying large transactional costs stand to lose the most. Smaller, more nimble institutions with sound leadership will do best. …

Harvard and MIT’s multi-billion dollar endowments enable them to support a residential college system alongside the virtually free online platforms of the future, but for other universities online education poses a real threat to the residential model. Why, after all, would someone pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend Nowhere State University when he or she can attend an online version of MIT or Harvard practically for free?

This is why those middle-tier universities that have spent the past few decades spending tens or even hundreds of millions to offer students the Disneyland for Geeks experience are going to find themselves in real trouble. Along with luxury dorms and dining halls, vast athletic facilities, state of the art game rooms, theaters and student centers have come layers of staff and non-teaching administrators, all of which drives up the cost of the college degree without enhancing student learning. The biggest mistake a non-ultra-elite university could make today is to spend lavishly to expand its physical space.

Read the whole thing. (Hat tip: Reed Fawell.)


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21 responses to “The Disruption of Higher Education”

  1. I’m pretty much on board with the sentiment but as per my habit, I go back with a devils advocate question to make sure we haven’t swilled too much of the conventional wisdom tea.

    Prior to the internet – if you had a kid and you could afford to buy him any and every book needed to “educate” him/her and/or they had access to as many libraries to their hearts content.

    Could they have conceivably acquired enough education to be comparable to a guy/gal who matriculated at a traditional bricks and mortar institution?

    was/is there something about personal interaction with instructors, labs, internships, graduate assistancy, etc that is getting overlooked when we think about acquiring knowledge?

    take this one step further. If a child has a normal IQ – why not let him/her acquire knowledge from the internet rather than a teacher?

    I don’t pretend to know the answers although I have asked from time to time what is the purpose and value of a human teacher – ..

    do we no longer need teachers and instructors now that any child with an internet connection has access to the biggest library in the world?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yeah …. it might be possible:

      “Could they have conceivably acquired enough education to be comparable to a guy/gal who matriculated at a traditional bricks and mortar institution?”

      “While young Lincoln’s formal education consisted approximately of a year’s worth of classes from several itinerant teachers, he was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader and often sought access to any new books in the village. He read and reread the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Franklin’s Autobiography”.

      Beyond which – software and the internet aren’t “just books”.

      I’ve learned more about Virginia’s politics and government over the internet than I could have ever learned by simply buying and reading newspapers and books.

      1. ” Beyond which – software and the internet aren’t “just books”.”

        I AGREE with that – BUT in the context of a University – what is the internet providing beyond “books” and is it what the Universities themselves provide beyond “books” – or is it different?

        In so many things, the internet did not just supplant one for one some business function – it CHANGED the way the business actually worked.

        Look at Journalism/newspapers.. before… and after…

        one of the other things is that the University provided the standard curriculum required for a Degree… not only provided it – DEFINED it.

        I think it’s interesting that MIT/others are NOT offering BS via MOOC but “mastery”.

        DJ is a businessman – do you pay attention to the type of education someone has? I think I asked you before and you said it was their job experience. if you hired someone with no job experience (and maybe you wouldn’t., what would you use to determine his/her “fitness” for the work?

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    There are two great quotes in the article (in addition to the quote Jim Bacon used):

    “It’s easy to forget that only ten years ago Facebook didn’t exist. Teens now approaching college age are members of the first generation to have grown up conducting a major part of their social lives online. They are prepared to engage with professors and students online in a way their predecessors weren’t, and as time passes more and more professors are comfortable with the technology, too.”

    “MIT is the first elite university to offer a credential for students who complete its free, open-source online courses. (The certificate of completion requires a small fee.) For the first time, students can do more than simply watch free lectures; they can gain a marketable credential—something that could help secure a raise or a better job. While edX won’t offer traditional academic credits, Harvard and MIT have announced that “certificates of mastery” will be available for those who complete the online courses and can demonstrate knowledge of course material. The arrival of credentials, backed by respected universities, eliminates one of the last remaining obstacles to the widespread adoption of low-cost online education.”

    1. virginiagal2 Avatar

      MOOCs actually are not designed to allow students to engage with their professors online. Students engage in forums with each other, and threads are ranked to rise to the top.

      1. reasons why I have been asking what bricks and mortar and in-person instruction have that MOOCs do not similar to – if you had access to any book any textbook you wanted – could you, on your own, without the things a college/university provide – end up with a quality self-gained “degree”?

        Many of the worlds original great thinkers did it on their own or studied at the feet of other learned men.

        “The word “university” is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”

        They appear to be a European creation and originally started as Church-sponsored institutions.

        ” Although the structural model provided by the University of Paris, where student members are controlled by faculty “masters,” provided a standard for universities, the application of this model took at least three different forms. There were universities that had a system of faculties whose teaching was centralized around a very specific curriculum; this model tended to train specialists. There was a collegiate or tutorial model based on the system at University of Oxford where teaching and organization was decentralized and knowledge was more of a generalist nature. There were also universities that combined these models, using the collegiate model but having a centralized organization.”

        MOOC appears to be fundamentally different from the above so MOOC is not a one for one replacement but a different paradigm all together.

        or could it have been as simple as the fact that books were very expensive and just not available to folks unless they went to college?

        the world does change. paradigms do shift. To this day, when an electronic device go kaflooey, even though people KNOW you no longer take them to a “repair shop”, they cannot bear to put them in the trash and so all across America there are things like betamax recorders sitting in closets and basements – modern day electronic zombies!

        and perhaps something along those lines of a “shift” is occurring in education.

        It’s more than people just upset with the cost… although cost is a driver but MOOC is not so much a “better” way than a “different” way.

        IMHO of course.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Design Concept – Fairfax University (aka FU)

    1. Data science classes and related courses (statistics, programming, etc) taught on site at a residential – style campus.
    2. All other necessary courses (English, foreign languages, women’s studies) taught via online courses from other universities.
    3. 5 year undergraduate curriculum with two separate semesters of paid work / study for area high technology businesses.
    4. No sports other than intramural.

    Chanted retort to insults from students at “full service” liberal arts universities:

    That’s All Right
    That’s OK
    You’re Gonna work for us someday

    1. I like it. ALL of it!

      Education is reacting to this the same way journalism did.

      dig hole in sand, insert head, humm reassuring songs ….pretend not
      to see the Mack Truck headed in your direction..

      I see more and more people hired “provisionally” pending their demonstrated performance in their claimed knowledge areas.

      one side issue. It’s pretty much demonstrated that kids with college-educated parents do not fall into the at-risk demographic… that the ones that do invariably come from parents with less “education”.

      that’s a real distinction.. with real consequences.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Pretty standard neocon fare isn’t it?

  5. naw..Neocon is foreign policy not domestic.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I agree with DJ’s point regarding the unschooled Lincolns of the world as buttressed by MOOCS whether or not they come with a Mastery Degree.

    Either way, the exposure of highly intelligent, competent, and motivated people to readily accessible and powerfully concentrated knowledge delivered in long distance format by great teachers is going to unleash a powerful new forces into the world – the individual that once given powerful new tools roars out from nowhere to make big differences in the world.

    I also think that the article somewhat underplays the continuing importance of the elite resident University that effectively combines MOOCs with the powerful seminar and other similarly powerful learning experiences available on the grounds of a great university. If nothing else, these traditional learners in residence settings will comprise the brain trust that implements the VISION of the learner genius who sat for hours on the East African savannah taking in the wisdom his MIT produced MOOC lecture delivered via I-Pad.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Problem with MOOCs and “great” universities. They have amassed lots of extraordinary content. So, the new university techies want to have them give it all away. And once you do that, what have you got? a FORMERLY great university because all the conservatives will have starved it of funding, specially if they are public schools.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Peter says: “And once you do that, what have you got? a FORMERLY great university because all the conservatives will have starved it of funding, specially if they are public schools.”

      I do not accept that statement But, lets assume it was true, and consider several other unrelated facts. Many elite university’s are expected to thrive in the MOOC world given their endowments as discussed in American Interest article. And, even without MOOCS, many of the rest of our institutions of higher learning are believed to be in the process of committing suicide by reason of their obsolete and corrupt educational policies and business practices in the running of their institutions. For a flavor of these polices and practices see for example:

      Also consider that UVA’s expensive STEM research plans (surely risky in any case) now may be built on little more than faddish mythology running rampant in today’s academic circles. See Chronicle of Higher Education Article dated November 11, 2013 titled “The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?

      1. I think this will play out with higher education the same way it has for other industries like stock brokers, journalism, even textbooks.

        these industries will not change or will be unsuccessful at change and will be drawn into the change pretty much while trying to cling to the status quo.

        but as it is with disruptive technologies – we really don’t know how it will play out and most changes that are the result of computers and software
        are unpredictable because they can fundamentally change the way a business or an institution works.

        we may think that college diplomas are irrelevant artifacts of a bygone era – but somehow an employer has to have some way of judging you even if it is for provisional employment. He/she is not going to hire a high school dropout with a bogus “mastery” certificate to do work that requires a well educated worker.

        To this point – diplomas and certificates have been a standard way to try to determine the accumulated knowledge and skills of a prospective employee.

        just like degrees from Phoenix are not considered to be the same as a diploma from MIT – we will attempt to decide the legitimacy and worth of claimed credentials.

        and certificates and qualifications for brain surgeons, airline pilots, etc will explicitly seek to ferret out imposters.

        all of us relay on qualifications. If any of you have ever had an operation, you undoubtedly had your life in two hands – the surgeon – and the anesthesiologist of which hardly any of us have a clue about their fitness to make us unconscious and literally bring us back to life.

        this is not that far away from how we determine diplomas…

        it’s the same church for sure.. just a different pew.

  8. Unfortunately education is headed down the path that journalism went.

    too many kids no longer have mom/dad/equity loan/etc to get them 4 years.

    and 50K in debt for a degree for which there is no demand in the market is going to get known not a good path.

    I have met so many young people lately who went to a community college and got an associates degree and/or a “certificate”.

    the gal who did the ultrasound on me got a medical technician certificate from a community college.

    the guy who worked on my furnace had an HVAC certificate.

    You won’t get rich doing these jobs – but you’ll put food on the table and pay the rent – and give yourself some breathing room for the next two years if you become so inclined and that’s where I think MOOC is going to change the game. How to continue working your job and get the next two years?

    And if you have a job – why not focus the next two years on something that has your current job as a foundation?

    then we have the kids who are at-risk and if lucky do get a decent education but their parents can in no way pay for their college.. what will they do?

    I know Peter thinks this is a bad thing – and maybe some of it is but in the wider realm – this is a good thing for those that would not have opportunity if not for MOOC.

    you can call it a poor-mans education if you want… and how many kids in SW Va could be “guaranteed” a college education if they got B’s or better and it started as MOOC?

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Miss the point. You will squander what made U.S. universities strong.You have no alernative.

  10. virginiagal2 Avatar

    Problem is, MOOCs as currently designed are delivering not-particularly-great instruction at a very low or free price. Dropout rates are about 90%. Measured comprehension is lower than classroom. Satisfaction and motivation is lower. The studies coming out on them are brutal.

    MOOCs right now are taking the weakest design of traditional education – large classes with talking heads in the front – scaling them up even larger – removing any chance of asking the professor questions, and throwing in machine grading.

  11. The other thing that has changed dramatically is the advent of what I refer to as dual-discipline fields.

    the first discipline is computer, technology that invariable involves computer pieces and parts…software, etc

    and then the second field:

    1. education – MOOC but also K-6 tablets, etc

    2. police – investigation involving the use of computers in crime… smartphones, facebook, sensors.. etc…

    3. innovations – like using drones to crop dust ….

    ” How North Dakota Plans To Become The Drone Capital Of America”

    ” We chat with Al Palmer, director for the Center for UAS Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota, about creating a drone-friendly state.”

    so if you want to talk about job creation in Va as well as reforming our education – we need to do better or states that used to be technology backwaters are going to clean our clock.

    We have a heavy military presence in Va and you’d think drones and drone technology and drone-oriented education would be our bread and butter…

    drones are actually multi-discipline. Aviation, GPS, optics, sensors, and the specific application that it will be used for.

    Virginia should be leveraging it’s proximity to the military’s use of technology both in jobs and education.

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Excellent point Virginiagal.

    I really can’t understand why so many other commenters don’t get it. It’s like turning education into a gigantic introductory or course survey course taught in a paint by numbers basis by a teaching assistant a few years older than you are.

    Except that you put bels and whistles on it and stream through the Web and call it brilliant progress.

    More and more we are back with Marshall McLuhan where the “medium is the message.”

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Peter says: “It’s like turning education into a gigantic introductory or course survey course taught in a paint by numbers basis by a teaching assistant a few years older than you are.”

      Peter – this is simply not the case. What’s happening is precisely the reverse.

      See for example Shakespeare comedies and histories taught by:

      Professor Peter Saccio, PHD Princeton University and Dartmouth College. The Leon D. Black Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth, Professor Saccio has been honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. He’s author of Shakespeare’s English Kings, a classic in its field. An accomplished actor and theatrical director, he’s also directed Productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymberline. His acting credits include Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV.

      See for example Shakespeare tragedies taught by:

      Professor Clare R. Kinney, PhD. Dr. Kinney is Associate Professor of English at University of Virginia. She earned her B.A. in English at Cambridge University. Under a Paul W. Mellon Fellowship, she attended Yale to earn her Ph.D. In 2007 Professor Kinney was recipient of University of Virginia All – University Teaching Award. She also received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the Z Society of the University of Virginia. Professor Kinney’s many articles include essays on Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmond Spenser, Milton, and Eliot. Her specialty is the literature of English Renaissance. She directs staged readings of plays by Shakespeare’s Contemporaries at Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.

      For more details see:

  13. here’s the deal. If higher ed had kept costs under control and in line with other inflation or even better lower – and people thought it was a bargain… no one would have rattled their cages.

    But it’s clear that Higher Ed has been screwing the public… abusing people and they bring in on themselves.

    Higher Ed should be a bargain. It should provide unquestionable value to people and society at an affordable price and instead it’s like dealing with payday loan companies….

    there is no defense for the damage that higher ed has done to itself.

    jesus.. I’m starting to sound like Jim Bacon.

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