Title

Changing Times

Numerous disruptions.

September 19, 2016
 

The future of higher education is no longer simply a matter of speculation.  It is taking shape right before our eyes, if one knows where to look.

Consider the following “less talked about” disruptions:

Through MOOCs:

  • Harvardx now offers premium courses on edX that include enhanced content, expanded contact with faculty, teaching assistants, and peers, and more meaningful credentials in return for a fees that range from $195 to $495.
  • Microsoft delivers its first professional learning courses in data science and leadership in educational transformation, also on edX.
  • MIT, for the first time, allows its own on-campus students to take the edX version of an MIT programming course for credit.
  • Udacity, in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, Nvdia, and Otto, is offering a nine-month program in self-driving car engineering for $2,400.

Through Non-Profits:

  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a leading non-profit, sponsors courses from leading scholars of U.S. history (including Edward L. Ayers, Linda Gordon, Peniel Joseph, Stephanie McCurry, James Oakes, and John Stauffer),  to teachers, who can receive an M.A. degree from Adams State University.

On campus:

  • Harvard’s CS50: Introduction to Computer Science, no longer offers on-campus lectures.  Students only need to show up to the class twice in the semester, with the rest of the time spent in labs, hands-on sessions, and tutorials.

Off campus:

  • General Assembly, with 15 campuses worldwide and over 25,000 alumni and 2,500 hiring partners, seeks to fill skills gaps in areas of coding, data science, design, and marketing.
  • Brooklyn Institute for Social Research offers roughly 70 rigorous non-credit face-to-face liberal arts courses to about 1000 adult professionals.

What, then, is the shape of the nascent postsecondary ecosystem? 

For one thing, this emerging environment emphasizes lifelong learning.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person born in the latter years of the baby boom (1957-1964) held 11.7 jobs from age 18 to age 48. GenXers and Millennials are even more likely to job hop.  In an increasingly volatile economy, skills upgrades and retraining are essential.

Many of the new programs come unbundled from the extensive array of support services offered by traditional college and universities.  Nor do these programs require a traditional campus or its associated costs.  As a result, the programs tend to be substantially cheaper to offer, with significant cost savings passed on to learners.

Third, the programs are often offered by unconventional providers, whether non-profit or corporate.  Brand acquires a new meaning when a respected institute or museum or, yes, corporation, leverages its reputation to offer a course of study.  It’s not at all clear that these organizations have lesser brand than a traditional college or university.

Fourth, and perhaps most strikingly, these programs are far more outcomes-oriented and skills-focused than programs offered by traditional educational institutions.  Their curricula quite consciously align with explicit industry needs and skills gaps.  Their connections with employers mean that these programs offer credentials with genuine value in the job market.  Consequently, the rigid division between education and training has begun to blur.

What are the implications of these developments for faculty, institutions, and students? 

These programs:

1. Demonstrate that there is substantial unmet demand for postsecondary education that is not being tapped by existing institutions.
These programs reveal the appeal of lower cost, more flexible, tightly focused educational models to working adults.

2. Expand the pool of instructors to include expert practitioners and professionals.
The definition of a subject matter expert changes profoundly in fields that are explicitly industry-aligned. Interestingly, some of these new programs do feature prominent faculty members, who participate as free agents, capitalizing on their reputation or special expertise.  Their value transcends their academic affiliation.

3. Create explicit connections between educational providers and employers.
It is a mistake to dismiss these new education models as mere trade schools for the digital age, even though the education that’s offered isn’t as well rounded or as regulated or accredited as that offered by a traditional college or university.  In fact, a large part of the audience for these programs consists of degree holders eager to retool or enhance their credentials.  In an environment in which there is a gap separating formal college education from workforce needs, these new providers provide the connective tissue linking graduates to jobs in a series of partner companies.

4. Reveal the value of new currencies for credentialing that are “employer endorsed.”
In a growing number of fields, a professional certificate is at least as valuable as a degree.  In many instances, these professional certificates acquire their value not from an academic accrediting agency, but from industry itself, which is more interested in functional knowledge, technical skills, and real world experience than time spent in a classroom.

Will these new models harm existing universities?  Only time will tell.  In fact, these new educational approaches might serve as models that existing universities will emulate, or, conversely, they might saturate markets that existing institutions might have pursued.  Without a doubt, we are witnessing a slower burn than during the turbulent early days of MOOCs.  But these are the kinds of innovations that will last – and will catch many by storm if they fail to pay attention.

“Something’s happening here.”  Buffalo Springfield’s words have rarely been more accurate.  It is time for higher education leaders to stop and ask themselves “what’s going down.”  What these leaders will see is that certain kinds of technical skills training are gravitating outside traditional universities.  In my view, it would be a mistake for existing higher education institutions to cede this growing domain to unconventional providers. But if colleges and universities are to successfully compete, they must better understand -- and emulate – the features that have given traction to these alternate models.

These programs:

1.  Demonstrate that there is substantial unmet demand for postsecondary education that is not being tapped by existing institutions.
These programs reveal the appeal of lower cost, more flexible, tightly focused educational models to working adults.

2. Expand the pool of instructors to include expert practitioners and professionals.
The definition of a subject matter expert changes profoundly in fields that are explicitly industry-aligned.  Interestingly, some of these new programs do feature prominent faculty members, who participate as free agents, capitalizing on their reputation or special expertise.  Their value transcends their academic affiliation.

3. Create explicit connections between educational providers and employers.
It is a mistake to dismiss these new education models as mere trade schools for the digital age, even though the education that’s offered isn’t as well rounded or as regulated or accredited as that offered by a traditional college or university.  In fact, a large part of the audience for these programs consists of degree holders eager to retool or enhance their credentials.  In an environment in which there is a gap separating formal college education from workforce needs, these new providers provide the connective tissue linking graduates to jobs in a series of partner companies.

4. Reveal the value of new currencies for credentialing that are “employer endorsed.”
In a growing number of fields, a professional certificate is at least as valuable as a degree.  In many instances, these professional certificates acquire their value not from an academic accrediting agency, but from industry itself, which is more interested in functional knowledge, technical skills, and real world experience than time spent in a classroom.

Will these new models harm existing universities?  Only time will tell.  In fact, these new educational approaches might serve as models that existing universities will emulate, or, conversely, they might saturate markets that existing institutions might have pursued.

“Something’s happening here.”  Buffalo Springfield’s words have rarely been more accurate.  It is time for higher education leaders to stop and ask themselves “what’s going down.”  What these leaders will see is that certain kinds of technical skills training are gravitating outside traditional universities.  In my view, it would be a mistake for existing higher education institutions to cede this growing domain to unconventional providers. But if colleges and universities are to successfully compete, they must better understand -- and emulate – the features that have given traction to these alternate models.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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