Higher Education's Online Revolution

Will online learning will destroy the "college experience?" No, but it will rebalance it.

I noted in this earlier post some of my views on the coming digital disruption of higher education.

This piece makes the following points:

Only The Beginnings - The Harvard-MIT partnership in online learning (edX) talks of reaching millions of new students in India, China and around the globe. They talked of the "revolutionary" potential of online learning, hailing it as the "single biggest change in education since the printing press."

They also acknowledged that the initiative, which offers free online courses prepared by some of the nation's top professors, is paid for by university funds—and that there is no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain it.

The MITs and Harvards still don't really know what they are doing, but that is normal at this early stage of massive change. Early stumbles and missteps (which edX may or may not be) will show the way toward what works, and what is the right balance between online and traditional learning.

No one yet knows exactly where this is going or how to get there. For now, policy makers, educators and entrepreneurs alike need to recognize that this is a revolution, but also a complicated process that must unfold over time before its benefits are realized.

Substitute (Cheap) Technology for (Expensive) Labor - The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom.

One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

Show Me The Money - How can elite institutions maintain their selectivity, and be rewarded for it, when anyone can take their courses?

Like countless industries before it, higher education will be transformed by technology—and for the better. Elite players and upstarts, not-for-profits and for-profits, will compete for students, government funds and investment in pursuit of the future blend of service that works for their respective institutions and for the students each aims to serve.

For Innovative Schools, a New Revenue Stream - In this blended educational world, the Harvards and MITs will not be stuck charging tuition for on-campus education while they give away course materials online. They and other elite institutions employ world-renowned leaders in every discipline. They have inherent advantages in the creation of high-quality online content—which hundreds of other colleges and universities would be willing to pay for.

In this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.

Who Does Digital Disruption Well? Apple, Microsoft… - It is said that that which can be digitized will be, and that which is digitized will be disrupted.

Who's good at digital disruption? The Silicon Valley crowd is pretty good at that. Imagine the amazing things to come with computerized instruction—imagine equivalents of Apple or Microsoft, with the right incentives to work in higher education—and they may give elite nonprofits some healthy competition in providing innovative, high-quality content.

New Balance - The coming revolution is essentially about finding a new balance in the way education is organized—a balance in which students still go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online.