Let’s first start off with a different question. “Who controls the bread supply in London?”

This was the opening question that Jonas Eliasson started with in his TED talk titled “How to solve traffic jams.”

As it turns out, there really is no single person responsible for making sure bread gets distributed every day in London. He used this as an example of a “self-organizing complex system.” So rather than relying on some bread czar to issue top-down edicts to make things happen, the system organizes itself.

A few months back I was interviewed for a Canadian documentary titled “Generation Jobless” produced by Dreamfilm Productions. The core focus of this documentary was to point out the amazing number of disconnects between higher education and the job market, and why such a high percentage of young people today can’t find work.

As an example, each year Canadian colleges graduate 3 times as many teachers as there are teacher openings. Many other industries have similar discrepancies with either too many or too few graduates to match industry openings.

To further complicate matters, employers are now placing a higher premium on experienced workers, and are less willing to invest time and money for training new entrants themselves. With colleges only offering the training piece, graduates are left in a catch-22 situation with little opportunity to get the work experience without the opportunity to actually work.

This started me down the path of considering why London’s bread supply works spectacularly well as a self-organizing complex system, yet education does not. And it all began with the central question, “Who controls the education industry?”

Betting on Your Future Self

For most entrepreneurs it’s very easy to determine who the customer is. It’s the person who decides to pay for the goods or services you have to offer.

But in higher education the buyer/seller relationship gets very muddy. Students taking the course will usually pay for it eventually, but often get loans, scholarships, and other forms of assistance along the way. In many respects, the future employer is the chief consumer of college output.

Whenever the purchase obligation is somehow “lubricated” either through grants, third-party payments, loans, or something else, the onus of responsibility gets shifted to some future version of yourself.

Most students believe their future self will always be richer, more connected, and more able to deal with financial obligations than their current self. In many cases, this is a correct, but not always. As a result, it is very difficult to accurately decide what kind of pain threshold you should impose on your future self.

When given the choice, immediate gratification almost always wins over future responsibilities. It’s very easy for a college representative to talk about the successes and lifestyles of their most prominent graduates, with the natural inference being that the only thing separating them from their much wealthier future self is signing on the dotted line.

Without accurate information about job trends, skill requirements, and industry demands, students are left with very little information to make a critically important decision.

In this context, students become the ultimate risk takers, betting on themselves to develop viable, marketable skills that the world needs.

The Five-Year Pipeline 

It was five years ago when today’s college graduates decided on which college to attend and what their major should be.

This is the stark reality of the 5-year educational pipeline created by today’s existing college and university system. Today’s colleges take far too long and are far too expensive.

The Primary Disconnect

Colleges are in the business of selling classes. Students are in the business of gaining marketable skills. These are two radically different objectives.

If colleges only got paid after students completed their first full year of work after graduating, even if only part of the tuition was withheld until then, they would quickly shift their focus from teaching what they thought mattered, to what future employers thought mattered.

Every HR administrator in the country would instantly become best friends with the college president.

Today, with college loans skyrocketing out of control, and the responsibility for repayment of the student loan falling solely upon the student’s shoulders, without even an option for filing bankruptcy, we are forcing 18-20 year olds to make lifetime decisions without any good basis for making that call.

Who Controls Education? 

Last year, James Glattfelder presented a very probing look into areas of power and control with his critically important TED talk, “Who controls the world?”

After conducting an impressive amount of research, he determined there were over 43,000 significant transnational corporations who essentially control the world. But probing deeper, he found that 737 of the top shareholders (primarily those in the banking and finance world) controlled 80% of the value in these corporations.

Drilling down even further, a tiny subset, consisting of only 146 individuals, controlled 40% of the wealth of these companies.

If we were to apply Glattfelder’s research to the world of education, we would undoubtedly find similar patterns of wealth, control, and power. Even though most of the highly regarded educational istitutions are non-profit and not “ownable,” the puppet strings of control are invariably being pulled by a similar set of individuals.

However, when it comes to policy decisions that help guide the overall direction of the higher education industry, much of that power and influence has traditionally come from key individuals at elite institutions like Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, etc.

Over the past couple years we have witnessed a significant power shift. Online education powerhouses like iTunesU, edX, Coursera, and Udacity have risen above the noise and are jockeying for industry clout. Coursera is currently showing signs of becoming the 8,000 gorilla in this space.

Once 2-3 diffinitive industry leaders emerge, they will also have the ability to change the rules of the game.

As an example, 5 years from now Coursera could very possibly have 50 million registred students from around the world. With that type of following, they could implement an entirely new system for replacing college credits and devise a far more effective way of credentialling academic achievement, with traditional Bachelor, Master, and PhD being replaced with 10-20 achievement levels that recognize learning over an entire lifetime.

Turning Education into a Self-Organizing Complex System

First, to function as a true self-organizing complex system, education needs to be parsed into far smaller learning elements. Semester-long courses are too long to allow quick change from a teaching standpoint, and overly burdensome from a student (consumer) perspective.

Is it possible to convert today’s college education from semester courses into a series of one-hour modules, maybe even shorter?

Replacing a one-hour module is far easier than replacing a 12-week long course. So from the standpoint of creating a highly adaptive, highly responsive learning system, course length is a critical element.

Second, when it comes to giving students accurate information to make informed decisions about their education, we will need to provide real-time statistics on employers, jobs, salaries, student loan details, etc.

Making these two changes alone will move higher ed significantly down the path to becoming a self-organizing complex system.

Final Thoughts 

Business professionals in the future will require twice as much training as their counterparts today, just to stay competitive.

As we move further towards a globally competitive workforce, competition will stiffen, and our need to shift gears will happen at a moment’s notice. We will no longer have the time and place luxuries of waiting for the right opportunity for education to happen.

If your entire universe of course options is the 1,500-2,000 courses offered by a local universities, you will find yourself at a severe disadvantage when competing against someone who takes courses on Coursera, EdX, iTunesU, Udacity, or Learnable.com.

The transition ahead for colleges and universities will be very messy, as competing forces on both sides of the change movement begin to form. As with virtually every other industry of the past, colleges will be forced to become more efficient, doing more with less.

Over time, this transition will offer tremendous benefits to society. In much the same way that ancient libraries had their books chained to the podiums, colleges have tried to chain learning to their campuses. Unleashing these chains of learning will serve as a cathartic release for the entire world.

That’s just a few of my thoughts but I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

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


14 Responses to “Who Controls the Education Industry?”

Comments List

  1. Jennifer

    I work in Higher Ed after transitioning from doing Corporate HR work (training and development). I sometimes feel like I'm in the twilight zone because when I talk about the need for students to learn and develop relevant, transferable KSAs, I hit a brick wall. The need for the "college experience" and the need for a liberal arts education are frequent arguments for our current state. Tenured faculty are unwilling to give up any research time or teach new students - they only want to focus on upperclass and graduate students. There are several problems with this - If we don't give new students a significant learning experience and opportunity to transition to college we can't retain them. I believe this is a huge problem in Higher Ed- everyone realizes there is a need for change, and will even agree to changes... as long as it doesn't impact them. I appreciate your work and always look forward to reading your ideas about Education -- thank you! I remember reading several years ago your thoughts on "a la carte degrees" and I couldn't even get my head around the idea of it... The rise of MOOCs is making that seem more than a possibility. The changes are going to come quickly - it will be interesting to see which institutions are still standing in a few years. I'm not sure my regional campus will make it.
  2. <a href='http://www.denvercybersecurity.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ray Hutchins</a>

    "If colleges only got paid after students completed their first full year of work after graduating, even if only part of the tuition was withheld until then, they would quickly shift their focus from teaching what they thought mattered, to what future employers thought mattered." That says it all. Follow the money. Brilliant piece Tom. Thank you.
  3. <a href='http://www.MacStartup.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kevin Cullis</a>

    Education is the last industry bubble to burst, and if they don't change, they'll lose. I recently attended a Home School Conference and also read where home schooling is accelerating in growth. The key issue is one of content. People are rejecting some of the content that higher ed is teaching because it goes against what people see in the real world. They do not want to be taught lies. Getting an "A" in OK, poor, old, or even bad content and kids who graduate with a high GPAs come across as "know it alls" compared with what businesses are doing in the market-place. But the real question: Why do businesses still buy the results colleges are selling? It's businesses that need to tell students what they are looking for and quit telling schools who won't change.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Kevin, I wouldn't say that Education is the only remaining bubble to burst. Healthcare, energy, insurance, and a host of other industries are overpriced and with face their own day of reckoning. But certainly education is a big one looming in the near future. I like your question - "Why do businesses still buy the results colleges are selling?" - and the answer seems to be that they are now less likely to do so, and will probably be far less likely in the future. But keep in mind, talented people, even though they received bad schooling, still remain talented people. They're being hired in spite of their education, not because of it. Tom
  4. <a href='http://www.MacStartup.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kevin Cullis</a>

    And as a last comment: Higher Ed will teach you the craft of your business (medicine, law, graphic art, etc.), but they fail to teach the business of your craft (how to make money with it).
  5. Babak Navabi

    It seems to me colleges are more for the benefit of (tenured) teachers than addressing the need for students to become competitive in the job market. Accessibility to internet has made many of the courses and the teacher that teach them redundant.
  6. <a href='http://www.JohnWren.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>John S Wren</a>

    For an increasingly large part of the population life-long learning is a necessity. Learning. Not schools or the education industry. I was blessed with two years on the campus of Cornell College in Mt Vernon Iowa, and then to have the privilege to transfer to the University of Denver the same year the self-educated Maurice Mitchell started as Chancellor there. It would be a mistake, based on my experience, to compare a MOOC with one of the classroom experiences I've had, the guest lectures and the late-night dorm discussions, or the talks with professors before and after class, going to their home for a discussion, or going to lunch with Chancellor Mitchell to talk about what I was going to do next, a talk that changed my life. Those who apply the thinking of the physicist or the business man to this problem, like those in the TED talks you posted, show to me they just don't understand the real problem. What is the real problem? I'm going to suggest we talk about that at Denver Socrates Cafe tonight. It's a free and open meeting. Join us at 6:30 p.m. at Trinity Church, 19th & Broadway here in Denver? http://Meetup.com/Denver-Socrates-Cafe
  7. Don Loving

    I have to agree with much of what is being said but there is one overlying thread, even on all of the comments, and that is that the purpose of a college education is always to "get a job". Not only is that not always the case but it also carries the very real danger of creating a society where such values as creativity or service are seriously diminished. Many graduates use their college education to build businesses or careers rather than to"get a job". Others will excellent in the arts. Finally the painful truth is that the truly elite schools already demean the goal of the"job". Let us look towards their example.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Don, Thanks for your comments. The skills mismatch for jobs is one thing, the skills mismatch for living a better life is quite another. When we hear music, we don't expect to hear it live every time. So why do we insist that education be "performed live" every time? Our education systems are filled with a staggering amount of redundancy. Teachers around the world are teaching the exact same material over and over and over again. And keep in mind that, by definition, 49% of these teachers are below average. If we could capture one of the top teachers in every topic, a 99th percentile teacher, and distribute their work to every school, we would instantly elevate all students to only working with top teachers. Yes, I understand this over simplifies the process, and truly great learning happens through experiences. But why do colleges and schools feel they need to keep recreating a course after its already been created? We continually handicap ourselves by thinking learning can only happen in a classroom. Yet we learn when watching television, listening to radio, reading books and newspapers. In fact, what we learn through "education" is now just a very tiny piece of our overall learning. No other industry demands that their work be "performed live" every time. So why should we allow education to get away with it? This is a luxury we simply can't afford. Tom
  8. howard doughty

    I may not know who controls it, but I'll bet it's the same people who've convinced us that it's an "industry." I do, however, doubt that it's anything like a self-organizing system. It's merely the training department of the dominant corporate structure. Colleges and universities provide commodified curricula, a market model in which customers (formerly known as students) determine the quality of scholarship, and private sector institutions (sometimes through their agents in government) establish the research agenda. As well as controlling what is taught, the corporate sector also determines how it is taught through its massive publishing enterprises and software intrusions. In the process, "pure" research is given short shrift, academic freedom is tossed into the memory hole and any thought of education (as contrasted with employment training) is becoming a cruel joke. Associate Professors are becoming the functional equivalent of Walmart Associates. So, sign up online, get your PowerPoint presentations ready, and welcome to K-Mart Kollege.
  9. <a href='http://www.ivn.net' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Craig McAllister</a>

    Just What Virtual Worlds Need: A New Paradigm – Live Video Avatars To many people, today’s avatars represent elaborate animations. Recently, however, much fanfare has been made about new technologies enabling animated avatars to mimic a wide range of users’ facial expressions. If you smile, your avatar smiles with you. If you frown, your avatar frowns. This development allegedly translates into greater realism. But is this realism “real” enough? If the objective is to make an avatar truly “real”, why not have it actually be real? Certainly there exists specific segments of the Virtual world population for whom animated avatars are preferred. These groups might include children under 10; teenaged gamers; and non-gaming adults in virtual worlds like Second life. In each of these examples, customization, fantasy, and/or anonymity take precedence over true realism. There are, however, a number of possible virtual world environments where users are likely to be interested in seeing avatars that are as realistic as possible. In fact, wouldn’t a live streaming video avatar of an actual person be a viable alternative to the currently available animations? This technology would allow for real time, face-to-face meetings in virtual worlds. People could actually see each other. One example of a real need for this technology is in the area of virtual world dating. As Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska and Andrew Ross said in their paper entitled “Matchmaking Through Avatars: Social Aspects of Online Dating”, “Once you have experienced the virtual delights of avatar dating in an online venue, taking that last fateful step and going for a real, physical, face-to-face meeting with your avatar date can only be a let-down.” Talk about a blind date! How could you even be certain of the gender of the animated avatar you were dating, let alone know what that person actually looks like in the real world? Ultimately, the list of situations where it would be preferable to have real time avatars is almost limitless. So the question becomes, when can we expect to see live video avatars? The answer is… now. A company called Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN) has been developing patented live video avatar software called Silhouette. With Silhouette, each user in a virtual world is able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar at real time frame rates, along with synchronized audio. Silhouette works with a single high-speed web camera to extract a user’s video image from the user’s actual environment, without the need for a monochromatic (e.g. blue or green screen) background. Silhouette could be used for all those virtual world situations where “real” actually needs to be real. Distance learning and virtual campuses represent an area with enormous potential for live video avatars, where MOOCs (massive open online courses) are currently the rage. Unfortunately, with these online courses there is minimal real time communication between students and teachers. We believe the use of Virtual classrooms with live video avatars in real time could bridge this gap. The heightened sense of presence and realism would facilitate more effective instruction and social networking. Silhouette would allow each online student to connect to and feel present in a real school type atmosphere and educational community, as well as establish "real time" relationships with their respective teachers. You can see the direction IVN is going with its live video avatar software by looking at its rough in-house “proof of concept” video which was done completely in-world: http://ivn.net/demo.html As indicated in the beginning of this post, live video avatars will not be for everyone, but once the technology is fully developed, it could bring a needed dose of reality to virtual worlds.
  10. Rachael Unsworth

    Replying to Tom's comment [9 above] Most top academics are under pressure to produce research rather than teach, so very few students get to have their input. Putting their teaching on the web would be a huge advantage for all - except for the vested interests that want to preserve the hallowed courts of learning for the elite who can afford/win scholarships to sit at the feet of the academic masters of the universe. (I speak as a Cambridge graduate who stayed on to do research and I loved the place with all its towers, bridges, lawns and real experience. However, I see the massive drawbacks for the world as a whole of this model of academic production). The system that's emerging will mean that many college teachers will be redundant … or will they re-invent themselves as one-to-one mentors/tutors, helping people to interpret content and learn to problem-solve when they’ve watched the top people impart the knowledge and insights? I'm taking a year off from my post as a lecturer now that my own daughters are off to higher education. I still enjoy performing in a lecture theatre but I have long recognised that it's a bizarre thing to be doing this in the 21st century. I want to put some of my material on the web and also develop one-to-one tuition to help students with elements of skills development that require targeted feedback: for example, critiques of their writing and other communication skills. On a related theme, part of solving the conundrum of young people with no work experience: how about if millions of sole-operator businesses, especially those of us with many years' work experience, were to take on a series of young adults to shadow us, to be mentored and to learn the 'soft' skills that employers say they need? It would certainly give young people valuable insights into a range of types of work and ways of doing it and it might lead to some real work partnerships if young 'tutees' turned out to show promising aptitude. MOOCs at one extreme and micro-apprenticeships at the other?
  11. <a href='http://www.UnleashTheUltimate.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Loren Murfield</a>

    I agree that higher education is the last bubble to burst and that many have much to learn to make the transition. But we must understand there are two competing factions inside and outside of higher education represented both in this article and your comments. On one side we have the TRAINING mindset, i.e. we go to college to get a job and they will train us in the knowledge and skills to get that job. That is important but like Don, I don't believe it is the only aspect. Those with a training mindset have more of an assembly line approach heavily focused on the process - not the student. The approach to excelling in the TRAINING mindset is to perfect the process and hire the best people to instruct so they can implement the training process. MOOC's work great here, assuming that every student is the same and we can maximize the efficiency and profits with one teacher and hundreds if not thousands of students. While this seems wise to the trainers, the other side is appalled. The second faction is the EDUCATORS who believe any education is a unique, personal process. Here the professor connects with the student on his or her own level. This is where and how the individual student learns a broad perspective to understand life, people and processes. It is how this educated (not trained) person comes to understand the complexity of situations and can mentally create a solution that solves a problem and then builds a team to make that solution a reality. It is only with the guidance of good professors that this individual becomes a sought after employee (if organizations want a creative thinker. Many only want someone trained in a process that will work to replicate their system. That is another big problem). The teacher/instructor/professor who works to educate a student must work on the individual level, carefully understanding what the student brings to the situation. This is much different than the training model. I agree that education must change. I taught in colleges as a full time tenure track professor and as a part time adjunct. I was even a department chair for two years. So I can say that making changes will not come easily because administrators, faculty, students and one forgotten group, parents, do not want these changes to happen. Too many want the current flawed and confused system to stay the same except parents and students want it to be cheaper. So the administrators seek to fine tune the assembly line, increasing class sizes, using more adjuncts, cutting the number of credits and pressuring faculty to ease up on rigor while giving more good grades. Many of the faculty have fallen into replicating the system to keep their jobs. After all, many faculty maintain their livelihood through good teacher evaluations from students who don't want to be challenged. No wonder we have an antiquated system. That is a recipe for disaster. The future finds employees who are rich in entrepreneurial thinking. We will only develop those entrepreneurs when we take more of an educational approach rather than a training approach in college. We cannot train someone to be creative - we must help develop them - and that takes a personal approach. Higher education will be transformed but into what? Will it be another version of TRAINING or EDUCATION.
  12. William Stewart

    The research you have mentioned additionally raises numerous paramount inquiries for national governments and universal offices. Case in point, if instruction is a self organizing system that rises over the long haul, what does this mean for the part of government and the route in which they intercede? Right conceivable to halfway arrange a spontaneous and self organizing system or do they rely on upon decentralized choice making?

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