Keynote address delivered at the 10th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Presidents’ Forum: “Scanning the Horizon for Distance Learning: Extending Access to Knowledge, Employment, and Prosperity”


We have a compulsion to talk about online education as an antagonistic either/or proposition. Amidst the torrent of discussions about online education’s potential disruption of the traditional system of higher education, there have been a remarkable number of false constructs put in place by educators, administrators, pundits, and wonks alike.

We talk about the online vs. elite educational experience, STEM vs. the liberal arts, for-profit vs. non-profit, private vs. public enterprise, credit hours vs. competencies, the liberal arts vs. skills needed for the workforce, MOOCs vs. residential college experiences, and the threat to professors’ jobs vs. amplifying the pedagogical experience via blended learning or flipped classrooms. In these debates, there doesn’t seem to be much room for a more nuanced acceptance and integration of alternative learning experiences.

We cannot simply dismiss online providers as non-competitors with established institutions, and we cannot assume that brand-name recognition will forever be a signaling mechanism to employers. Indeed, 13.5 million students attend schools that do not qualify as selective or elite schools. Currently, the top 250 colleges ranked by US News and World Report are responsible for educating less than 25 percent of the 18 million college students in America. Only one-fifth of college freshmen live on a residential college campus. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2020, 42 percent of all college students will be 25 years of age or older. The traditional undergraduate age of 18 to 22 is now in the minority.

What this means is that all institutions of higher education will have to think more critically about how they offer learning, justify their costs, and consider whether and how to adapt their curricula to the changing labor market and needs of the workforce.

Indeed, the notion of a long-term career is evolving as we speak, as workers must now be actively responsible for honing and constantly developing new skills for the new technologies and jobs emerging on a day-to-day basis. The average Millennial will have seven jobs by age 26. And only 23 percent of Millennials think they will still be with their first employer after two years.

At the same time, the major demographic of MOOCs is the 35 and older working adult population who already have college degrees. As more working adults return to school, we are learning that four years of college is no guarantee for a career.  A degree—even a well-branded degree—is no longer some kind of moving walkway on which we can passively ride for the rest of our working lives. As employers have become increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the quality of bachelor’s degree candidates, we cannot necessarily assume that a college degree is enough to ensure employment and upward mobility.

This is why we must pay close attention to the innovations emerging from the margins. I call these upstart innovations “marginal” because they are buffeted by our existing gatekeeping systems such as accreditors. Because accreditation is a form of self-governance run by higher education institutions themselves, there is absolutely no incentive for a panel of institutional peers to enable the entrance of a new, outside provider, especially one from the for-profit sector.

The problem is that the six regional accrediting agencies in the U.S. measure inputs and processes that depend heavily on time-based requirements, such as our inadequate credit-hour system. They do not in any way attempt to facilitate degree completion by enabling a transparent credit transfer process, nor are they usually open to alternative learning pathways as evidenced by the recent Ivy Bridge/Tiffin/Altius/Higher Learning Commission debacle. Moreover, they are not equipped to make the dramatic mental shift to oversee a competency-based educational system that promotes an entirely different kind of pedagogy and mode of student learning—one that has nothing to do with the credit hour.

Recently, as talks have begun to consider the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Senator Harkin has insinuated that accreditors should be more involved in controlling college costs. The notion is worrisome: a gatekeeper taking ownership of even more regulatory practices while having the ability to stamp out potentially exciting and innovative learning alternatives to the status quo.

The best pathway for marginal disruptors to create strong mechanisms for lifelong learning is to function from without—far from the regulations that could impede their mobility and mute their creative potential.

From our research on innovation at the Clayton Christensen Institute, we know that disruptive innovations never succeed through a head-on attack against regulations and the network effects that constitute the power of the status quo. Rather, the disruption first prospers in a completely independent space outside the reach of regulators.

As an example, Southwest Airlines didn’t disrupt the airline industry by seeking approval in the early 1970s from the federal Civil Aeronautics Board for discount prices on long, interstate routes. Instead, it began flying short routes within the state of Texas, where the federal regulators lacked jurisdiction.

Merrill Lynch was able to topple the regulation of bank interest rates because it was not a bank and therefore not regulated by the Federal Reserve when it introduced its interest-bearing cash management accounts.

There are dozens of comparable examples. In each case, markets that were dominated by entrenched competitors surrounded by powerful network effects and protected by regulation ultimately gave way to the fait accompli of a new network, and to efficient, safe markets that emerged by circumventing regulation. Head-on attacks almost never work.

By working from the margins, innovators have the ability to move more nimbly and implement their ideas. UniversityNow for instance keeps its tuition prices low enough that it does not need to rely on Title IV money and the quagmire of regulations that go along with it. Innovators will need to function outside of the auspices of accreditation and worry less about gaining ACE recommendations and regional accreditation and instead focus more on how they can get employers to appreciate and validate learning experiences that do not necessarily translate into credit hours.

What is currently elided in higher education is an attempt to measure student-learning outcomes. We do everything possible to measure fixed seat time, but we have few good measures of what our students really know. Just think about college transcripts. These documents are uncommunicative as they serve only as a signaling factor to employers by illustrating a rough sketch of a candidate’s potential. As a result, different companies like MyEdu, Smarterer, Degreed, and LinkedIn are thinking strategically about how to display a student’s abilities, skills, and experiences in order to validate both traditional and non-traditional learning experiences.

Whether you believe in the power of MOOCs, the fact is that Coursera has exceeded $1 million in revenue from its Signature Track Program, which enables students to earn certificates for courses completed. Moreover, MOOCs like edX and Coursera have finally become a bit more savvy and strategic about their course offerings and are now packaging series of courses, such as Wharton & Coursera’s foundations of business courses and edX’s and MIT’s Xseries in Computer Science and Supply Chain & Logistics. These blocks of courses, bundled together, can ideally have more of an impact on employer’s understanding of what a candidate knows about a specific field of expertise. Through its recent creation of the Open Education Alliance, Udacity connects learners and employers by attending to the skills gap in the tech industry. Educators and employers are able to build certified learning pathways for Udacity students while having access to the growing pipeline of qualified students that they are partly responsible for building.

These are exciting developments as we reinvent ways to make prospective jobseekers’ portfolios or CVs come alive for employers. Upstart innovators have the unique opportunity to modularize, combine, and package certain skills and competencies into meaningful, accessible, brief, and affordable programs that raise the level of our students to meet the demands of the labor market.

Forty percent of employers report that they are unable to fill entry-level positions with candidates with adequate skills. Particularly where the employer is truly the ultimate consumer of the graduates in training, employers—not accreditors—are the only ones who need to be persuaded. If these certificate programs can help associate’s or bachelor’s degree-holders make a more seamless transition into and throughout the workforce, therein will be the true validation of their brands. There is space to improve what Anthony Carnevale calls the “cross-fertilization between liberal education and more applied curricula.”

The idea that four years amply prepare you for the workforce is quickly becoming outmoded, as more workers find themselves returning to school to re-tool for newer and better jobs. We need facilitators of lifelong learning now. Those who innovate beyond the narrow confines of a four-year residential degree and coordinate a much-needed, dynamic, affordable, and flexible interplay between education and industry will ultimately prove to us that they are the new brands that we can trust.

As we strengthen our mechanisms for lifelong learning, we won’t need to get caught up in the for-profit/non-profit, private/ public, either/or divides that beleaguer us now. Rather, we have the opportunity to spur this long-static sector and compel investment in academic quality that is student-centered, accessible, affordable and linked with learning outcomes.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD