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The Future of Colleges & Universities: Blueprint for a Revolution

NOTE: The following is the first in a four part series title: The Future of Colleges & Universities:  Blueprint for a Revolution

A recent article in the Washington Post began with the statement that today’s college students “may be part of the last generation for which ‘going to college’ means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors.”  By using these three aspects of college life – packing up, dorm rooms, and tenured professors – the writer was able to clearly illustrate the ritualized process of traditional university education, setting the stage for major changes coming in the very near future.

In 2007 I released a paper on the future of education, culminating an 18 month effort to probe the likely evolution of a system that has become emotionally linked with many of our country’s and the world’s deficiencies.

I talked about what I saw as the coming iTunes form of education where courses from anywhere in the world could be easily created through a templated process, sent to a central distribution site, and easily distributed to students around the world. At no time had it occurred to me that iTunes (Apple) may be one of the key players in making it happen.

While the paper generated huge amounts of interest, the predictions of massive change happening within the following two years proved to be a few years too optimistic. That said, a revolution is coming.

As the disruptive forces of the Internet bear down on colleges and universities, everyone is beginning to feel the leading winds of this impending storm, but few have a clear view of the changes to come. Newspapers, travel agencies, yellow pages, and record labels are all industries that have been greatly affected by the Internet, and each foretell a different version of what may lie ahead.

College 2.0 will witness a massive peeling apart process. Learning will become separated from the classroom. Courses will be created organically and formed around an on-demand, any-time, any-place delivery models. Professors will declare their independence and work for multiple institutions rather than just one specific college. Accreditation will shift from the Institution to the course and to the individual. And textbooks, the ink-on-paper version that we know today, will all but disappear.

The granting of diplomas, that enormously powerful document that bestows standing and privilege on its recipients, will begin to erode as prospective students are confronted with a vast array of faster, better, cheaper “status” options.

Campuses, many of which have been built over the past two centuries, will begin a painful transformation, as they move from 19th century education factories with dormitories, sports teams, and great tradition, to a future that I will discuss below. Buildings will be remodeled, organizational charts will be rewritten, and the very notion of what a college is will be questioned every step of the way.

We are entering a grand age of experimentation. The biggest opportunity for colleges and universities lies in the unchartered territory outside of their current domain. The walls that have been built over many centuries to contain the universities are much like the fabled walls of Jericho. They are on the verge of “tumbling down.”

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I happen to be a big fan of colleges and the complicated systems they use for bringing value to society. I am also a fan of creating a better future and the two seem to be on an inevitable collision course.

Unlike most forecasts, this paper is as much about helping colleges survive as it is about predicting the forces that are intent on unraveling them.

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Lessons from the Ancient World

During the time of the ancient Greek civilization, several mathematicians became famous for their work. People like Archimedes, Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy all brought new elements of thinking to society, furthering the field of math, building on the earlier work of Babylonian and Egyptian mathematicians.

A few generations later the Romans became the dominant society on earth. The one aspect of Roman society that was remarkably absent was the lack of Roman mathematicians. Rest assured, the scholarly members of Roman society came from a good gene pool and were every bit as gifted and talented as the Greeks, but Roman society was being held hostage by its systems. In this case, it was their numbering system – Roman numerals.

The feature that made Roman numerals so inferior was that each number lacked specific numeric positioning, making each number more of an equation than a single integer. The added layer of complexity prevented people from doing higher math.

Roman numerals were a system problem, and a huge one at that. They prevented an entire civilization from furthering the field of math and science.

Romans were so immersed in their numbering system that they had no clue that it was preventing them from doing even rudimentary math such as the adding of columns of numbers or simple multiplication or division, a feat still handled by abacus. It also prevented them from creating some of the more sophisticated banking and accounting systems which restricted academia from moving forward in areas of science, astronomy, and medicine.

Ratchet forward to today. We live in a society where virtually everything is different from the days of the Roman Empire. But what seems so counterintuitive to most is that we are even more dependent today on our systems than the Romans ever were. Most of these systems we take for granted – systems for weights and measurement, accounting, banking, procurement, traffic management, and food labeling. With each of these systems we are much like the Romans, immersed in the use of these systems to a point where we seldom step back and question the reasoning and logic behind them.

Our systems govern virtually every aspect of our lives. Much like fish not understanding what water is, we seldom step back to fully understand the context of the world around us.

The critical question we should be asking is, “What systems do we employ today that are the equivalent of Roman numerals, preventing us from doing great things?”

My contention is that our entire college and university system is the equivalent of Roman numerals. It is indeed preventing us from doing great things.

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The Quest for a Higher Calling

Wikipedia defines education as the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to the next. Much like modern day monks transcribing the scrolls of our generation onto fresh sheets of papyrus, colleges have staked out their territory as the conveyors of wisdom and culture from generation to generation.

However, the laborious transcription work done by monks, was pushed aside in favor of a higher calling. As printing presses came onto the scene in the 1500s, the intensive human-based efforts were soon far too inefficient to compete. Similarly, colleges are about to find that their digital counterparts in the education realm are about to render their human-based teaching operations far too inefficient to compete.

Rest assured, the need to convey information from one generation to the next will still exist, but the professors, like the monks of the past, will be given a higher calling.

The writers of Star Trek often used the concept of a “prime directive” to refer to the overarching purpose or mission. If we were to formulate a prime directive for colleges, what would it be?

For colleges to survive and thrive, the coming years will find them searching for higher ground. Their struggle will be to transition themselves beyond regional objectives, political boundaries, and short-term thinking.

Instead, college will focus their considerable talent base on the challenges that lie ahead, capturing the salient points of understanding with each step of the journey. Much like an astronaut setting foot on a new planet, future colleges will be seen as the ever-vigilant explorers of the unexplainable, guiding us into worlds unrecognizable, creating doorways into a future that is unknowable.

Similar to the way the news media serves to assure a clear separation of powers in all areas of governance, one of the key roles for future colleges will be to save us from our primitive selves. They will become the champion of forward progress, the defender of what’s possible.

Just as the forces of tradition favor the status quo, the forces of next generation learning and understanding will favor the non-status quo. In short, colleges will become our checks and balance for the status quo.

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Fundamental Drivers

So why are all of these changes starting to happen, and what are the fundamental drivers underlying these shifts? At the heart of these changes is a maturing base of Internet technologies connecting people and rewriting the rules for communication. This has resulted in a shifting base of cultural standards, speed of operations, and overall expectations.

As with many industries, universities have established themselves as the intermediaries, the gatekeepers between information and our minds. With information now abundant and free, the gatekeeper business model is quickly becoming unworkable.

Here are a few of the cultural forces behind the changes that lie ahead:

1.) Pricing themselves out of existence: Students and their families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford college, forcing them to be more pragmatic in their decisions:

  • Nationally, tuition and fees have risen 439% since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while median family income has risen only 147%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education)
  • 69.2% of private colleges reported that loan availability for their students and parents has been negatively affected by the economic downturn. (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities)
  • In October 2008, nearly 60% of surveyed high school seniors were considering a less prestigious college for affordability reasons; 14% changed their focus to a two-year college; 16% put their college searches on hold. (MeritAid.com)

2.) Customer perceived value: Outcomes are defining the perceived value of college education.

  • The number of college graduates who were out of work hit a record high of 1,413,000 in November 2008, as business and professional services jobs and financial services jobs experienced record staff reductions. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • For years now, women have been earning more college degrees than men. That trend is accelerating. The biggest difference isn’t so much who starts college, but who finishes. Men drop out at much higher rates. (Chicago Tribune)
  • An August 2009 study released by SRI International for the U.S. Dept of Education concluded that “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (NY Times)

3.) Cultural shifts: The perceived value is a core component of a college’s reputation, and that reputation is being continually re-defined in online communities.

  • 81% of Americans age 18 and over use the Internet. (Harris Poll)
  • On average, 245 million word-of-mouth conversations occur in the U.S. daily via e-mail, IM/text messaging or chat rooms/blogs, and 35% of advice givers in online conversations fall within the 13 to 17 age bracket. (Keller Fay Group)
  • 64% of college student Internet users consider word of mouth the most useful type of advertising. (Alloy Media + Marketing)
  • Many of the top attributes that teenagers value in a brand — community, collaboration, co-creation, empathy, real story and meaning — relate to authenticity. (Ypulse)

4.) Disruptive technology: Online education is set to overtake traditional education.

  • Today a full 80% of colleges employ some form of online education, and the number of students who choose online education is growing rapidly. From 500,000 online students in 2002 to 3.9 million in the fall of 2007. (eMarketer)

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Other Trends

The type of employees that companies want to hire is constantly forcing colleges to adapt their curriculum. The interface between college outputs and corporate inputs is poorly meshed and in a constant state of flux.

To complicate matter even more, the output of colleges is “terminally flawed humans.” And as every college knows, the caliber of students entering the system plays a critical role in the caliber of students exiting the system.

Beyond statistical numbers that we can hang our collective hats on, there are a number of other social shifts to consider.

1.) The ‘Good Enough’ Revolution: While most colleges are striving the “be the best,” most consumers are opting for a solution that is “good enough.”

Keynoting at an online publishers conference last October, New York University new-media professor Clay Shirky shocked the audience of producers and editors when he said, “Don’t believe the myth of quality.”

“When it comes to the future of media on the Web,” Shirky warned, “resist the reflex to focus on high production values. We’re getting to the point where the Internet can support high-quality content, and it’s as if what we’ve had so far has all been nice—a kind of placeholder—but now the professionals are coming,” Shirky said. “That’s simply not true.”

Similarly, an emerging area of the software industry has given birth to “duct tape programmers,” programmers who produce code and bug fixes without all the trimmings.

Traditional thinking presupposes that great quality education can only be delivered by a topical expert in the front of a classroom. With new SRI International research that suggests students learn more from online learning than classroom education, the stage is being set for next generation “good enough” courseware.

2.) The Rise of the Community College: Community colleges today are booming. Nationally, 1,200 community colleges currently enroll nearly 50% of all the undergraduates in the United States with over 6 million students currently in the system. Even though the cost of attending community colleges has been climbing, it still amounts to roughly a third of the cost for four-year institutions. Additionally, a growing number are now offering four year degree programs.

The largest community college in the US is Miami Dade College with over 170,000 students. In the fall of 2009 they were faced with an influx of 33,000 new students, a crowd so large that it severely stressed out classroom space, parking spaces, and teaching staff to handle the new arrivals. Approximately 30,000 could not get into the classes they wanted this fall; about 5,000 others were shut out completely.

Miami Dade is not alone. Community colleges across the US have been reporting record years fueled by high levels of unemployment, easily obtainable loans, and a sense that community college education is “good enough” to find another job. It’s a smaller commitment – smaller in terms of money, admission requirements, academic achievements, travel and relocation.

Much of the appeal is the hands-on nature of some of the coursework. Auto repair, machine shop, carpentry, CAD, filmmaking, and audio engineering are but a few of the courses that prepare students for specific jobs, often without the requirement of taking courses that they struggle with.

3.) Scalable Professions: Who in your mind is the nation’s most famous college professor? If you are struggling to answer this, you’re not alone.

In contrast, who in your mind is the most famous radio talk show host? The most famous newspaper columnist? Or the most famous cartoonist? Most people have a much easier time with these questions.

So why are radio talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, and cartoonists more famous than college professors? The answer lies in one word – “syndication”. Their works have been syndicated across the country, sometimes around the world, and many have created a significant business operation that is based on their personal reputation and their cumulative body of work.

Radio talk show hosts are more famous than the radio stations they are heard on. Many newspaper columnists are more famous than the newspapers their articles show up in.

Today’s education systems do not allow for that same type of scalability. Professors are tied to a single institution and their sphere of influence is limited to the walls of that organization. The most famous people in colleges tend to be their presidents or their athletic coaches.

Yes, there are always exceptions, and some professors have won Nobel Prizes or garnered national fame through a best-selling book, or nationwide scandal. But in nearly all of these cases, their fame has resulted because of their work outside of the university.

Similar to the way “articles” have been freed from the newspaper, professors and their courses will soon be freed to expand beyond the walls of a single university.

4.) Scalable Courses: In much the same way that iTunes and YouTube have created standardized formats for organically generated music and video content, a new system will arise from the Internet that enables the creation and distribution of organically generated courseware.

Most universities look at entry-level courses such as Econ 101, or Chemistry 101, or Sociology 101 as standardized “commodity” courses necessary to prep students for the meatier subjects that will follow. Very often the teaching of these courses has been turned over to teaching assistants and grad students.

With many of these courses being little more than packaged commodities, they can easily be repackaged and distributed via the Internet. In a globally competitive environment, the best media presentations will naturally rise to the top.

Companies such as Curriki, Moodle, Connexions, Wikiversity, Blackboard, and the Open Courseware Consortium have all recognized the opportunity associated with this kind of online educational offering. The one currently getting the most traction is the Australian-based Moodle, currently boasting over 26 million users and over 2.6 million courses.

In spite of their progress, Moodle still lacks the web-based templated interface necessary for explosive growth. They also lack the web-based distribution system that allows anyone on the street to take their courses.

5.) One-way Information is Out: Communication technology today is designed around the two-way flow of information. People are no longer satisfied or trusting of one-way information systems. They want to participate, contribute, and take ownership of content.

Because of the restrictive nature of printed books, we will begin to see dramatic changes in what a next-generation book is. The Amazon Kindle and Sony book reader are paving the way for what comes next..

Where once a customer would passively read and, hopefully, absorb a book, every volume in the future will be more akin to an online forum, with authors, experts and other readers available to discuss and answer questions on almost every important book ever written.

6.) “Your Education is Now Complete” – Who is it that came up with the notion that someone’s education is ever finished? This is the single biggest flaw in our system today.

One of the core principals of business is to never sever ties with good customers. So why is it that colleges hand their graduates a diploma, dissolving all formal relations with them? Clearly the educational needs do not end, and the student’s allegiance to the institution does not end, yet all income streams are broken.

The biggest failure point here is that colleges need to charge unreasonably high tuition rates for the short duration of the student-college association, when the payments could easily be spread out over a lifetime. The fact is that most students continue to pay off their student debts over their lifetime with only distant memories of what they learned. An educational mortgage paid over a lifetime needs far more than a short-term education for collateral.

7.) The Credit Fallacy: Colleges currently grant credits for demonstrated competency at the end of a course. Yet, most graduates place high value on the “educational experience,” the things that happen outside the classroom that usually have little or nothing to do with their academic studies.

We currently have very little understanding of the economics of knowledge, and virtually no understanding of the economics of an experience.

The fallacy being perpetuated is that since colleges do not offer credits for the experiences, experiences have no perceived value. Yet the experience is one of the key differentiators between a campus-based and online education.

By Futurist Thomas Frey
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