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The End of Higher Education As We Know It? November 17, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.
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I’m back from a brief sojourn to the Supercomputing conference, which provided me with material for several posts as soon as I can commit them to bytes.  The first concerns the keynote, presented by Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, entrepreneur, and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

First, I’d like to point out something amazing.  Dr. Christensen started by noting that he had suffered a stroke only three months earlier, had to relearn writing and speaking from the ground up, and this talk was his first opportunity to put that relearning into practice.  While he stumbled over an occasional word, and spoke more slowly than might have been the case in the past, he gave a valiant effort and an engrossing presentation.

To those who have read The Innovator’s Dilemma and understand his concept of disruptive technologies, there was little new in the presentation.  However, I’d like to focus on some offhand remarks he made regarding higher education and disruptive technologies.

In general, his thesis is that drastic change occurs not because organizations armed with new technologies go after the same market as the traditional organizations, but because they start with something that only nips at the heels at tradition.  The advent of transistors didn’t immediately kill off large, floor-standing TVs, because they weren’t good enough.  Instead, they began in an entirely new market, portable radios.  In a few years transistors became good enough for tabletop TVs, which is what killed off those vacuum-tube dinosaurs.

Likewise, no one would accuse an online school as having the reputation or quality of a Harvard.  So online schools serve a different audience, and a different purpose.  They provide largely career-oriented education to non-traditional students who lack the time or schedule to commit to an in-person education.

Clearly, traditional colleges and universities don’t see that as their core market, and may willingly cede that function to a low-cost provider.  But it’s likely online education with improve substantially in a few short years, and begin to offer low-cost alternatives for the next tier of student.  And so it goes, until traditional higher education still has the costs, but no market willing to pay them.

Online education also benefits from larger trends in society.  Folks of my generation (the baby boomers) no doubt benefitted from living and studying with a variety of people.  But today’s social needs may be different.  Going off to college may in the not-too-distant future logging into a Second Life world, with your avatar going to class, attending sporting events, and socializing with other avatars.

Higher education, with its decades-long trend of prices outpacing inflation, is ripe for a disruption such as this.  We may just be seeing the beginning of the end of higher education.

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