The Transformation of a College Education

The world of higher education is undergoing change. At the moment the change might not be easily perceived, but it is occurring, because it must.

The primary factor behind the change is higher education’s inexorably rising costs. Over the last two decades college costs have been rising annually at 1.6% above inflation. Reasons abound: administrative costs, the building of country club like facilities, faculty costs, the constant upgrade of technology for engineering and science department, even Baumol’s cost disease—the tendency for costs to soar when labor intensive sectors (such as higher education) are beset with stagnant productivity.

The second key factor is the need for constant training and retraining. Research from Oxford University indicates 47% of occupations are at risk of being automated in the next decades. Moreover, the labor pool is far from uniform. There are mothers seeking reentry into the labor market, displaced workers, and career changers: the permutations are endless.

In the face of these challenges, a technological seismic shift is occurring with the MOOCs (massive open on line courses).  Today MOOCs can be taken on computer, tablet or phone, and creating a new course costs around $70,000. The potential of the MOOC, which first launched in Canada in 2008, is so promising that Clayton Chritensen of Harvard Business School predicts that within the next decade and a half “more than half of the universities [in America] will be in bankruptcy.”   

The three major providers of MOOCs, edX (MIT and Harvard), Coursera (Stanford) and Udacity  have provided courses to over 12 million students, of whom 2/3rds are from outside the US. 

Some examples of how MOOCs are currently evolving:

  1. Used to gain credit for life experiences: Students who take a MOOC on, for instance, Social Network Analysis, can describe what they learned, back it up with proof, and then place it in a portfolio (which can be developed through or another comparable service) along with other such demonstrated learning examples. MOOCs promise to change the perception of prior learning especially among the selective colleges, which have been skeptical of unstructured life experience. MOOCs, however, use professors from many of these same selective schools, presenting a solid case for awarding credit for prior learning.
  2. Several MOCCs are under accreditation review by the American Council of Education (ACE), which runs one of the most established credit recommendation services. If approved, students completing certain MOOCs will be eligible for credit from such universities as the University of Maryland University College, or George Washington University.    
  3. Antioch College has already cut a deal with Coursera, one of the major MOOC developers, to use courses for credit towards its bachelor’s degree programs.
  4. Coursera is developing means to proctor assessments through a webcam system. Such courses with webcam proctoring will charge between $150 and $250 per student. This might provide a solid financial model (as many Coursera courses have hundreds of thousands of students), while dealing with concerns over online assessment accuracy.

Abraham Lincoln, a true autodidact, would have salivated over the number of MOOCs available free. Google up ‘Harvard’s Open Learning Initiative’ and you’ll find an array of courses on Shakespeare, history, math, or computer science. Or, go to MIT’s Open Courseware to find over 2,100 courses on physics, economics, music, or theater arts.  

MOOCs are a disruptive technology already creating shifts in postsecondary education. They can be used to reverse the spiraling cost of education, while disseminating the greatest lecturers and thinkers to all corners of the world. As its technology improves, MOOCs will become a mainstream part of college education: they have already made their presence known to millions.