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Tom Friedman had an interesting quote in a recent NYT opinion piece:  “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”  And so begins the third post in the series on “Foundations of Strategy.”  Building on the two previous posts about demographics and supply, this post focuses on technology.

Technology allows content to be created and consumed differently than in the past. Just as technology has altered the market for music and news, higher education appears to be next in line for the great unbundling.  Now education, assessment and even degrees can be individuated.  Students can now take individual courses from various providers and transfer credits to make more tailored degrees and experiences that fit their needs – and technology will certainly further this individuation. Online content, classes and degree programs have changed the way people think about what is possible in higher education. And online education has opened the door to both remedial and advanced education for more people than ever before.  It has unbarred the gates. 

Interestingly, this was predicted awhile back, in a 1981 article titled “The Dismantling of Higher Education,” by William K.S. Wang (Improving College and University Teaching, Volume 29, Number 2, Spring 1981, pages 55-69).  In the article, Wang discusses five primary services performed by traditional universities – imparting information, counseling, credentialing, coercion, and club membership – and how they are currently performed by traditional universities. . . and how they might be replaced.  Here is a brief synopsis of Wang’s idea:



Educational technologies have been in the news a lot lately, particularly since the announcement of “the Stanford experiment” that morphed into Coursera, MITx, the Minerva Project, and now edX

Still to be determined, though, is the business model for many of these new initiatives. Free is not typically a sustainable business model and foundation funding doesn’t last into perpetuity.  So perhaps a Freemium model, where most users use the free version and some number pay for “extra” services. . . like credentialing?  (This sounds like where MITx is headed.) Or the supermarket model, where products are sold at a very low margin and “we make it up in volume“?  (I’m not sure we see anyone in this space yet.) Or charge less-than-expected-for-a-great-education, as the Minerva Project plans to do with their expected $20,000/year in tuition, making it “accessible to the middle class.”  Definitely some experimentation going on.

Even with all of this very exciting innovation I, like many others, wonder about “the college experience,” and what may get lost if higher education becomes one big online experience.  But that’s the topic of a future post. 

What do you think will happen with technology and “the great unbundling” of higher education?  Will it happen quickly?  Slowly?  Not at all?  And what will be the most successful business models?

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