For colleges and universities, the great age of experimentation is now upon us.

Last week, Harvard and MIT announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.

The Minerva Project recently announced it will become the first elite American University to be launched in over a century, at the same time, transforming every aspect of the university-student relationship. The Ronin Institute is promising to reinvent academia, but without the academy.

The University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s first tuition-free online university dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education.

In addition, iTunesU, Khan Academy, Learnable, Udemy, Codecademy, Udacity, and a number of other online courseware providers are offering their own approach to next generation learning.

But somewhere, lost in the middle of this battle of the institutions, are the lowly professors upon whom these organizations were built.

That is about to change and here’s why.

The Great Disconnect

As the student loan bubble nudges ever closer to a financial implosion, and the flow of information on the Internet disrupts every traditional delivery mechanism, a number of questions begin to surface.

Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep thinking?

Colleges and Universities carry with them considerable inertia. They have long-standing traditions, huge alumni networks, solid brands in the minds of consumers, and are more durable than corporations. Many have lasted centuries and are still going strong. Most have integrated themselves into their respective communities with multiple funding tentacles, often benefiting from massive State-funded budgets and intense fundraising operations that extend around the world.

People attend colleges for many reasons including a desire for a better job, a sense of personal accomplishment, to improve their resume, status and prestige, build relationships, and to have fun. However, all of these reasons boil down to one overarching motivation – the quest for a better life.

Over the years colleges have evolved from a simple place of learning into a vast array of potentials. In the end, classrooms and teachers are only a tiny portion the collegiate experience.

Touch points for the college experience include dorm life, textbooks, credits, sports, friends, parties, social circles, fraternities, sororities, libraries, computers, clubs, campus events, research, writing papers, classrooms, teachers, beer, advisors, labs, job interviews, and much more.

Ironically though, most of these touch points have been relegated to “all that crap that happens outside the classroom.” College friends, parties, social events, and all the other “stuff” provides many more of the ingredients for college being a life changing experience than all those fact-cramming lectures could ever hope to achieve.

Yet credits are only given for completed courses.

Typically, young people begin the process at age of 18 and exit between the ages of 22-24. As they leave, they are not only better educated, but also more mature, with a new circle of friends, and a cadre of stories that will frame their thinking for the rest of their lives.

Any person fighting a war understands that the outcome of the battle is highly dependent upon the caliber of people standing next to them. Similarly, the outcome of the college experience is heavily dependent upon the caliber of students involved.

Over the years, the “rules of the game” have been erroneously written to exclude the value of the experience, thereby giving undue advantage to both low-cost and minimal-experience providers. With college costs spiraling out of control, students are rightfully asking, “What’s the cheapest way to get a diploma?”

Celebrity Professors, a Scarce Commodity

Much like Henry Ford’s “control everything” approach to building cars at the River Rouge Plant where raw materials were brought into one end and finished cars rolled out the other end, colleges have maintained tight control over virtually every aspect of the academic food chain happening on their campus.

Professors are carefully recruited, classroom times and schedules are thoroughly planned, courses are tightly prepared, degrees are strategically framed around in-house talent, and academic accomplishments are meticulously positioned to help brand the experience.

For this type of system, the days are numbered. The walled gardens of academia are loosing their walls.

Institutions who have professors locked under contract offer few options for extending influence beyond the traditional publishing route. That is changing with the availability of online courseware.

As an example, iTunesU, started in 2007, currently has over 1,000 Universities participating from 26 countries. Their selection of classes, now exceeding the 500,000 mark, have had over 700 million downloads. In addition, they recently announced they were expanding into the K-12 market.

However, even when colleges start playing catch-up, offering Internet-based courses, the professors tend to get left out of the decision-making process. In most cases, courses are little more than a video camera in the back of the room fraught with low production values and irrelevant lengthy diatribes.

Professors are also being left out of marketing decisions, personal branding campaigns, and how the intellectual capital of their life’s work get’s disseminated.

Universities can always add more professors, but an individual professor has a limit to how much they can produce over a lifetime. And that’s the nugget of scarcity that professors will demand greater control over in the future.

Are you super enough to be dubbed a SuperProfessor?

FacultyRow’s SuperProfessor Award

The “SuperProfessors” designation was officially launched in 2011 by the academic social network site,

People they judge to be worthy of the SuperProfessor title come from a peer-reviewed group of academics that consistently demonstrate excellence, passion, and clarity, throughout their academic careers.

“Technology is beginning to stratify academia” according to FacultyRow expert Steven Lewis. “We are convinced that leading educators, or SuperProfessors, will become increasingly valuable going forward. Student classrooms and expert knowledge will continue to become global on a massive scale.”

Currently there are 4,000 professors who have applied for the official 2013 SuperProfessor Award.

In much the same way the Nobel Prize rose to prominence in the early 1900s, FacultyRow hopes to set the stage for uncovering the best of the best in college faculties.

Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig

Unleashing the Celebrity Professor

Working as a professional speaker, I see many parallels between the teaching profession and the speaking profession. But one big difference is that professional speakers are not bound by the walls of a single institution.

Last fall when Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their class, an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” to anyone who had a web connection, something amazing happened. Over 160,000 students, two thirds of whom lived outside the U.S., enrolled for the class.

As a way to deal with the huge numbers, lectures and assignments, the same ones administered in the regular on-campus class, were posted and auto-graded online each week. Midterms and finals had strict deadlines.

Much of the course’s popularity can be attributed to the celebrity status of the professors. Sebastian Thrun headed up the Stanford team that won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005 and currently serves as the head of Google X, a lab created to incubate Google’s most ambitious and secretive projects. Peter Norvig is the Director of Research at Google.

While the Stanford brand played a significant role in the popularity of the course, it was the celebrity status of the two professors that made the course go viral.

This course served as a Woodstock-moment for academia.

Thinking Long-Term

In addition to academic prowess, future SuperProfessors will be ranked according to attributes like influence, fame, clout, and name recognition.

Future criteria for winning the FacultyRow SuperProfessor designation will likely include benchmarks for the size of social networks, industry influencer rankings, and gauges for measuring effectiveness of personal branding campaigns.

But college courses can be much more than an expert talking in the front of a room. If the same college courses were handed them off to television producers, game designers, or mobile app developers, we’d see radically different approaches to making the material fun, interesting and engaging. Look for this approach in the next generation of online programming.

People most effective at producing courseware in the future will have complete production studios staffed with video crews, interactive experts, gamification mavens, courseware experience specialists, usability teams, outcome testers, and much more. Leading the operation will be a celebrity SuperProfessor who name extends far beyond traditional classrooms to the hearts and minds of nearly everyone on the planet.

Final Thoughts

Even though the Stanford class taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig had over 160,000 students enroll for their class, a mind-numbingly high percentage of those students, over 137,000, dropped out before completing it.

This is clear sign of our current experimentation phase where colossal mistakes are needed to test the limits of what’s possible. But at the same time that we see colossal mistakes, we will also see colossal disruption, and many traditional colleges will begin closing their doors.

Thrun predicts that in 50 years there will only be 10 universities left standing to deliver courses. Look for over half to be gone by as early as 2030.

Currently we are seeing a tremendous duplication of effort. Entry-level courses such as psychology 101, economics 101, and accounting 101 are being taught simultaneously by thousands of professors around the globe. Once a high profile SuperProfessor and brand name University produces one of these courses, what’s the value of a mid-tier school and little-known teacher also creating the same course?

As Ball Corporation executive, Drew Crouch puts it, “Education is definitely moving from a history of scarcity to a future of abundance. Just like Gutenberg freed the written word, the Internet has freed information.”

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

12 Responses to “The Rise of the SuperProfessor”

Comments List

  1. J. Patrick McGrail

    I agree with the general idea of this article, to a point. Perhaps it would be better to say that I mourn the loss of subtlety that the reliance on a few more "vetted" sources for the production of introductory courses will mean. I came of age when different professors taught very different courses, even if all of them were entitled, say, "Economics 101." One professor emphasized guns and butter, another Adam Smith. Each chose a different textbook, if indeed it was not his or her own. Now, if we decide that Econ 101 will simply be a computer coursepack on a jump drive or whatever media of the future, everyone will learn the very same "take" on literature, philosophy, politics, etc. All of the quizzical musings of distinctive professors, both good and ill, will be washed away. Gradually, of course, this lack of distinctiveness will make its way up from introductory courses to more elaborate and specific courses. This is because it is "wasteful" to have so many professors teach Knowledge 101 to all those students. It's so wasteful, after all, to even have students attend a brick-and-mortar college for four years, when they could be working a minimum wage job instead, and getting an "education" on his or her downtime from a 22'' screen. (Don't worry; by then it will be 3D.) Don't people realize that the brief period of time when young people are just developed enough to understand the Big Questions yet have not embarked upon the time- and life-consuming business of a career is the perfect time for them to go to some old buildings, get to know lifelong friends and ingest some interesting thinking? I simply fail to see why such a model is obsolete. If college were no more expensive than yesterday, I doubt we would be having this conversation.
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Vahid V. Motlagh</a>

    This reminded me of the education model in Persia at the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. Using the characteristics that you identify for Super Professors I begin to recall the names of Avicenna, Al-Biruni, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi among a few others who had "influence, fame, clout, and name recognition" but unfortunately had not the super technology within their reach. Back then only a handful number of influential polymaths were giving lectures in their cities for any person who cared to come. And the major aim of education was achieving wisdom plus networking (life changing experiences that are highly dependent upon the caliber of people sitting next to you) and not necessarily degrees or certificates for the job market. The big hurdle was of course long distances which now thanks to the Internet is part of history. As a matter of fact I see a recurrence of a historical model of education, this time on a planetary scale, which is enabled by modern technologies.
    • admin

      Vahid, Thanks for your comments. In the early 1900s in the U.S. corporations didn't want individual inventors like Edison and Tesla to become more important than the company they were working for. So, as a result, they started requiring all scientists and engineers to assign all of the intellectual property they developed to the corporation. This ended the era of famous inventors. Similar to the corporate world, academia has not wanted individual professors to become more famous than the institution. But we are now headed towards a time, much like you describe, where the professors will once again rise to the top. Thomas Frey
  3. Spikosauropod

    You have such odd ideas about teaching. As I have said before, a teacher is not someone who "delivers" information to students. A teacher is someone who cultivates understanding in students. If delivery were the main issue, the problem would have been solved thousands of years ago with series drawings like in comic books. A good teacher is constantly monitoring feedback from students and modifying their message accordingly. A good teacher literally invents their way through the process. A good teacher is an artist. If you can show me someone who doesn't agree with this, I can show you a lousy teacher. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig failed because they weren't teaching. Computers will inevitably be able to perform the task of a good teacher. However, that will not come until we are in the mouth of the Technological Singularity. When computers can replace teachers, the game will be over.
    • admin

      Scott, Thanks for weighing in on this. I love the way you describe the talents that a great teacher brings to the table. But at the same time, not all teachers fall into this category. And more importantly, in our current system, great teachers are not scalable. It's also important to note that a study in 2009 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.” The difference was that classroom students performed at a 50th percentile while online students performed at the 59th percentile. We will probably aways have face to face learning in some fashion. But the time is ripe for testing new options, and a lot of people are doing just that. Thomas Frey
  4. Spikosauropod

    Thomas, I am very suspicious of any such study. I have both online and in-class students. Online students are typically better prepared and more mature. If they do not seem to be doing well in a class, they will drop it before they can receive a grade.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    I agree with Tom on many levels. The first study comparing correspondence school with classroom education was done in the 1920s (by a PhD candidate at Columbia), and the results haven't changed. Students studying on their own do as well if not better on the final exams, as those who sat in classrooms. Educators were suspicious then, and they are suspicions now, because those facts are too threatening to accept. Fred Keller eliminated lectures in teaching psychology 101 and put in place a mastery system. Everyone who finished ended up scoring an A, and many students finished early. Naturally, the university shut it down. In reality, colleges and most of education and training today, is a knowledge transfer business. It is a textbook consumption process in a fixed time interval. If you don't read the book, go to class. If you do both, and you do the assignments and you answer the questions in the back of the book, you get an A in almost every course. If you do none of those things, you likely fail. All other combinations produce results that fall in between A and F. And if you read the book twice, you can skip the class. As my soon-to-graduate, philosophy major, A-student daughter said, I had no idea how much of college is just memorization. Yes indeed, even for a "how to think" major like philosophy. As for super-professors, I would say that Carl Sagan and his Cosmos show on PBS from 1978 and 1979, which he wrote, was the first modern example of a super-professor. When a great mind and personality is coupled with great content and multimedia production, it a leap forward for learners. Cosmos made Carl Sagan famous, and he made studying the Cosmos cool. He had more famous than Cornell. And, over the last 30 years, planetariums have sprung up all around the world, mimicking or enhancing the production quality of Cosmos. With the cost of media production falling and with ubiquitous high-speed connectivity worldwide, more and more super-events and super-professors will get their chances to reach millions. Soon, professors will dis-intermediate universities. Credits will either become meaningless, and competency will rule, or credits will be pried lose from the crusty claws of universities and become available through open, multiple channels. Universities are to students what publishers were to authors, a big money sucking machine.
  6. Spikosauropod

    I agree that lecture is not very effective, but even students who take classes online and succeed probably get help from someone. My argument is not with the method of delivery, but with the notion that teaching is about delivering information. As for the notion that colleges are attempting to protect their empires, I assign that the status of pure bunk--not even deserving of refutation.
  7. Spikosauropod

    I am in a computer based math class at this very moment. I just finished explaining to a student how to compose f(a+h)-f(a) when f(x)=x^2-2x+7. The absurdity of this "learning by memorizing text" notion really jumped out at me.
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mickey Russell</a>

    I agree with Tom on all his points and would just like to add that I think the next Facebook type fad will be a blend of Social Media meets SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) based instruction. A facebook where a person can be both teacher and student. With sites like Udemy, Coggno, WizIQ, ProProff, iSpring, Litmos, MindFlash, DigitalChalk, Odojoo, eLearningzoom, SABA, WestNetMLP, Sclipo and others. And by using software like Articulate, Capavate, SNAP and iSpring you can develop multimedia based course and provide more than the outdated eBooks and boring Powerpoint based instruction methods used currently. There are freelance teacher making over $500,000 per year with courses on these sites. What college can match that kind of money.
    • admin

      Mickey, Some terrific comments, and thanks for pointing out some of the online ed sites that I wasn't aware of. The level of experimentation is truly breathtaking. Amazingly there are some colleges paying out over $500k to high profile professors like ex-governors, Nobel Prize winners, patent holders, etc. But its rare. The freelancers, however, will have unlimited upside if they devise the right business models. Tom
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mickey Russell</a>

    One other thought. Colleges are just middleman and nothing more - oh, and a great place to party. Let me give you an example of not needing a college degree but just training to make a great living. Take a commercial pilot. He can get all the training he or she needs within one year to fly for an airline which is considered one of the highest paying job in the world after a few years of on-the-job-training. Yes, you have to pay your dues for about 3-4 years and live off of a bad salary during that time. But, after those years you are headed quickly to a 6-figure job with great benefits. And, you don't need a college degree to get hired by the airlines. Most get their training from freelance instructors with no middleman in-between. Yes, there are colleges that offer airline type degrees, but I know of many airlines that only care about your flight training and not your degree. The only use for a college is to add cost and to protect bad teachers with tenure and union protection. I see great teachers actually getting paid what they are worth in the future without being tied to the college system. I use to teach at a college and saw so many crappy instructors ripping off students with out-of-date material. I left that world and became a freelance instructors several years ago and can tell you this - I'm so glad to be out of that racket.

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