The Future of Higher Education in the Digital Age

By Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Creative Officer and Professor of the Practice at the University of Baltimore

There’s been plenty of talk lately about the future of higher education as tuition costs soar, student loan debt inches towards the $1 trillion mark, public confidence in college as a path to success dims, and government support for higher education continues to erode. But while all these factors (along with increasing competition, globalization, and the decline in the US economy) certainly are having a large impact on the institution of higher learning, the real changes coming down the pike might be a lot more disruptive… and driven more by what’s going on online rather than what’s going on in Washington or on Wall Street.

There’s nothing new about online education: colleges and universities have been using the Internet for remote teaching since the mid 1990’s. According to the most recent available numbers published by Sloan, over 6 million students were taking at least one online course… over half a million more than were enrolled in online classes during the previous year. In fact, while overall student enrollments have increased by barely one percent, online enrollments have shown growth greater than 10% year-over-year. At this point, according to the Sloan study, nearly one third of all college and university students have taken at least one online course.

The important thing to remember about these figures is that when we refer to “online education,” we’re not just talking about the seemingly-ubiquitous private for-profit institutions that many folks associate with “online.” The growth in the sector is across the board and, in fact, the Sloan report finds that it’s the private, for-profit institutions that are showing the slowest growth with most reporting either flat or declining enrollments. The growth, it appears, is happening in what many consider the “traditional” higher education sector: public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities. Far from resisting online education, 65.5% of Chief Academic Officers reported to Sloan that “online education is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy.”

At the same time that “traditional” colleges and universities are moving their paying students online, some of the biggest names in higher education are beginning to offer free versions of their courses to anyone who wants to sign up. Massively Open Online Courses (otherwise known as “MOOCs” pronounced “mooks”) got off to a modest start in 2008 when the University of Manitoba offered an online course that attracted 2,300 students but really took off in the Fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun (Stanford) and Peter Norvig (Brown) offered an artificial intelligence course to the world that attracted 160,000 registrants.

Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley launched in 2012 in order to offer open courses to anyone who wants to take them. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng of Stanford launched Coursera in 2012, currently offering courses from 16 different universities on topics ranging from business to medicine to over one million registered users.

But while the popularity of MOOCs and the growing enrollments in online courses are interesting as indicators of the market’s desire for quality, flexibility, and access, they also may be more interesting as harbingers of what higher education’s going to look like in the future. Simply put, they’re glimpses of how the Internet is about to disrupt higher education in the way that so many other industries have been disrupted over the past decade and a half.

In order to understand why, it may be necessary to take a quick step backwards in time and look at how education has worked for centuries. While variations have cropped up here and there, the model has essentially been the same: a scholar develops knowledge through training and research and then imparts that knowledge to his or her students. While some larger and more affluent universities can afford to provide assistance to the professor in the form of graduate assistants, the process of education is, for the most part, crafted and delivered by one person to those who can fit into his or her classroom.

In many ways this model isn’t all that different than the pre-industrial revolution craftsman. In the days before the industrial revolution, products were produced by an expert craftsman who probably learned his trade through a long process of apprenticeship and by working to perfect his technique. The craftsman handcrafted products one at a time and sold them to a limited local or regional market. Often the craftsman had little local competition because geography and population limited the size of the market he had to sell to. A village could only support so many blacksmiths or cabinetmakers.

The industrial revolution changed all this. First, industrialization allowed for the mass production of goods by using machinery to increase the speed of production and assembly-line procedures to allow people with simple training to contribute to the factory’s production because they only had to learn one simple job. Advances in mechanization (e.g. the steam engine) also allowed producers to distribute their products to a much wider audience across a much larger geographical area. The mass production of common household products pushed out the local craftsperson who made those products because a factory could make them cheaper and faster than he ever could. The result was consolidation of the means of production into the hands of the few who could put up the capital to build the factories (to make the products) and the railroads (to distribute them). The revolutionary part of the Industrial Revolution was about controlling the means of mass production and controlling the means of mass distribution.

Up until fairly recently the model of higher education was fairly pre-industrial. The university served as the “village” where faculty (“craftsmen”) worked after having toiled away as “apprentices” in graduate school and eventually leaving their home villages (“university”) to ply their trade somewhere else. What they “produced” was knowledge, and this knowledge was distributed to their students (“customers”) up close and personal in classrooms. In this model “production” is limited because knowledge is hand-crafted by highly trained individuals and “distribution” is limited because teaching can only be done face-to-face.

Enter the Internet. What the Internet provides is a new means of distribution that allows knowledge to be propagated on a global scale for little or no cost. The producer (the professor) no longer has to have his or her “market” for their teaching limited to face-to-face distribution but instead can, by putting it up on the web in an online course or a MOOC, distribute it to the whole world. All of a sudden location ceases to matter and the power of the producer of knowledge to produce and sell to an audience becomes virtually unlimited.

As we’ve seen over the past decade with other industries based on intellectual property—primarily the music, film, and book publishing industries—when the “product” (the sounds, the images, and the words) is separated from the medium it was previously delivered on (records, DVDs, and physical books), business models built on control and distribution of information in physical form can no longer survive. The record and film industries misunderstood this and are slowly dying. They thought they were selling records and DVDs when what they were really selling was the information contained on that media. When the digital technology allowed the information to be separated from the medium and the Internet provided a worldwide distribution mechanism for that information these businesses – built on controlling the means of production and distribution—were doomed. They may be still limping along but ask yourself: when’s the last time you visited a record store or a video rental store? One visit to iTunes (or Netflix or Hulu) is all you need.

For centuries, the model of higher education has been based on the same principles of controlling the means of production and distribution of information (and distribution was, for the most part, limited by geography). Move that model to the Internet and it doesn’t work anymore. On the Internet one university is just as “close” to its students as any other… typing in one URL is just as easy as typing in another. Once a college or university goes online it is no longer competing based on the attractiveness of its physical location, the opulence of its student amenities, or how easy it is for part-time students to reach after work. While a university may have been able to charge a premium before due to the fact that the only other university like it happened to be on the other side of the country (therefore limiting its pool of prospective undergraduates), in the online world a student can go to Google (or a specialized search engine for online courses such as Noodle and find the course or the school that fits them perfectly for a price they can afford.

Of course, we’re still a ways away from the scenario portrayed here. Today most students still take face-to-face classes and geography plays a big factor in the decision about where they’re going to go. MOOCs may offer free courses from top-tier universities, but MOOCs (for the most part) don’t offer credit or any other recognized credential for students who enroll for the free version. Faculty, even if they’re teaching online, still are the primary creators and distributors of the information they teach…as long as they’re expected to interact with their students, answer questions, and participate in discussions. The village may have expanded its borders a bit, but most of the goods it produces are still being distributed to a limited range of customers.

For now. The one thing about information as a product is that, as Stewart Brand so famously said, “information wants to be free.” And while his comment has often been misinterpreted to mean, “information doesn’t want to be paid for,” what he really meant is that the nature of information is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to bind it to a particular place or medium. This may have been difficult to comprehend in the world of 1984 when he first made this statement because most information was contained on analog media but it’s not hard to understand at all in a world where information is digital and can be copied and transmitted at the speed of light. If we’re to begin to imagine the future of higher education, we need to remember this.