Hacking higher education

By:

Sep 10, 2009

There’s a great story about the future of higher education out in Fast Company. I’m sure many have read it by now, but if not, I recommend it highly. The article by Anya Kamenetz is titled “How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education.”

The piece focuses on how the Internet has the potential to be an enabling technology for a massive disruption in higher education that challenges many of our conventional assumptions. The Internet has been at the heart of the disruptive online universities for some time, but this article takes it further. One of the biggest insights is this: it’s not simply the technology, it’s the model in which it is used that matters. That’s true of all disruptions—they are enabled by a simplifying technology, a business model innovation (and this is perhaps more important), and wrapped in a new value network.

Some highlights:

– From David Wiley, a leading light in this space: “The challenge is not to bring technology into the classroom, he points out. The millennials, with their Facebook and their cell phones, have done that. The challenge is to capture the potential of technology to lower costs and improve learning for all.”

– And also from Wiley: “‘A sufficient infrastructure of freely available content is step one in a much longer endgame that transforms everything we know about higher education. … If you didn’t need human interaction and someone to answer your questions, then the library would never have evolved into the university,’ Wiley says. ‘We all realize that content is just the first step.’”

– “‘Open courseware is hard for the self-learner,’ agrees Neeru Paharia, a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Building a social network to make it easier is the goal of her newest project, Peer2Peer University. … She wants to address ‘all the other things that a university does for you: It provides you a clear path from A to B, provides social infrastructure of teachers and other students, and accreditation so you actually get credit for what you do. So the question becomes, Is there a way of hacking something like this together?’”
(This is something I’ve been talking about on the stump in the K12 space as well for some time.)

– Ultimately what interests Paharia is proving the model, demonstrating that there’s a way to provide education cheaply or even for free to all who are qualified.

– From Bob Mendenhall, head of Western Governor’s University: “‘We said, ‘Let’s create a university that actually measures learning, … We do not have credit hours, we do not have grades. We simply have a series of assessments that measure competencies, and on that basis, award the degree.’ … Most students, though, do the full coursework, working at their own pace through online course modules, playlists of prerecorded lectures, readings, projects, and quizzes. For every 80 students, a PhD faculty member, certified in the discipline, serves as a full-time mentor. ‘Our faculty are there to guide, direct, counsel, coach, encourage, motivate, keep on track, and that’s their whole job,’ Mendenhall says. Multiple-choice tests are scored by computer, while essays and in-person evaluations are judged by a separate cadre of graders. What WGU is doing is using the Internet to disaggregate the various functions of teaching: the ‘sage on the stage’ conveyor of information, the cheerleader and helpmate, and the evaluator.”

– “Mendenhall is impatient with those who argue that what he’s doing with education and technology is unworkable. ‘Technology has changed the productivity equation of every industry except education,’ he says. ‘We’re simply trying to demonstrate that it can do it in education — if you change the way you do education as opposed to just adding technology on top.’”

* * *

In addition, subsequent to Kamenetz’s piece, Kevin Carey wrote a thought-provoking piece on higher education as well. Published in Washington Monthly, it talks about this same phenomenon by profiling the disruptive company StraighterLine. It’s called “College for $99 a month: The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities.”

– Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.