Fifty years from now there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.
—Sebastian Thrun, founder of a sky-rocketing digital university
There is a higher education experiment happening right now that could topple traditional universities. For elite universities, the brand they have built might not be relevant in the near future. And the old stigma of earning a degree online will fade. This article overviews the digital shift in education that goes far beyond ‘offering courses online.’
Earn a degree online?
Yes, you should. But not from DeVry. Or the Education Connection. Or the University of Phoenix. Those online degree programs might be using new technology but they are selling the old, tired promise: college education is the path to security, wealth, and realized potential.
A different groundswell is already moving. And traditional higher education institutions will soon feel its influence. Last month, I saw a random tweet, offering an online course on How to Build a Search Engine. I signed up. The course is taught by two prominent computer scientists, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, and David Evans, a professor on leave from the University of Virginia. It began as an experimental free online course. And it took off. Over 90,000 students enrolled in one course. And 160,000 students signed up for Thrun’s online course on artificial intelligence.
A couple of guys, a website, some excellent online coursework, and hundreds of thousands of students. Since then Mr. Thurn quit Stanford and will now focus his energy building these few online courses into Udacity – an online educational site for the masses.
The scale is impressive. But only the beginning. As Mr. Thurn told the New York Times.
Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.
Stanford, of course, is nervous. They don’t want to put their name on it. Or, they want their name attached to it, but not on it. Because education operates in a stock market of exclusivity. If you let a million people take a course with the Stanford emblem, your elite value drops.
“We’re considering this still completely experimental, and we’re trying to figure out the right way to go down this road,” John Etchemendy, the Stanford provost, told the New York Times. “Our business is education, and I’m all in favor of supporting anything that can help educate more people around the world. But there are issues to consider, from copyright questions to what it might mean for our accreditation if we provide some official credential for these courses, branded as Stanford.”
That’s funny, though. Because they think they have a choice. They think they have power to decide a direction and set a course. Either you refuse and become irrelevant. Or you extend your elite brand to the millions and watch the walls topple down.
If a hundred thousand people sign-up for a single course and you talk about copyright and branding, you have already lost. Because you think your authority is still relevant in a new world: like the music business thought suing Napster would make people start buying physical albums again. And then forgot to watch a computer company suddenly become the world’s largest online record store.
Because while the Stanford administration has late-night meetings about ‘brand control,’ Thrun is building his online university. According to Wired, he imagines in 10 years, job applicants will show their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education. Udacity, he believes, has a shot at being one of them.
Because the future of higher education involves swapping elite prestige for scale. Millions and millions of people taking a course. The prestige brand of education is dying. The quality of your online course and the number of people who use it is the new credibility factor. From the most elite, to the most used.
Digital education will be much different. It won’t require massive administration or brand control. It will be about the best content, the most profound and well structured courses. Because, in an age when media transmission is free, the best content scales and spreads.
And in the near future, the elite students won’t be judged by what university they can get into. They won’t be judged by the exclusivity of their knowledge. They will be judged by what they can do with their knowledge.
Online Degrees and the Decline of Western Education
Elite universities have much to fear. The first online degree programs were cheap imitations. They were still selling the idea of college education, only a cheaper model. It was good for business. Like a cheap car parked next to a Maserati.
Diploma mills, Devry, and the glut of technical skills flooding markets with any trace of a skill trend that bubbles–these are the signs of decaying education market. Online degree programs are virtual vultures. They see the writing on the wall. In every business, the end of a mature market is always the most profitable. It’s when the market is educated, thirsty, and willing to buy. And it is also when the product becomes worthless, comodified, paritied, and replaceable.
The end of the market is when disruption happens. The decline of Western Education. The decline of education as an aristocratic club.
This is why traditional higher education institutions won’t adapt: because they will try to do the same thing they are now, only online. Sell degrees. Earn credit. Fly the emblem of prestige. They will think their trusted brand will give them a lead in the online education race. Just as Time Warner thought their brand would trump BitTorrent or the Pirate Bay.
New PhDs–the World Is Yours
The old rarely change because they have too much to lose. You have only a better future to gain.
So–part-time professor with 20 students in your creative writing class, what is stopping you from designing the best online course, and getting 50,000 students in your class. Offer it free. And then sell the 5,000 serious students a $25 seat in your second, private online class. And do that a few times a year.
And new PhD’s….you don’t need tenure to teach, you don’t need a university to pay your bills. If you are good, and if you really have something interesting to teach, then finding an audience isn’t hard.
This silly blog I write has been read almost 200,000 times. And I write in my spare time.
On a serious note, if a great creative writer is looking to create an online course, I’d be willing to help. My day job is a digital marketer and I personally think that authors with published books and interesting ideas can make a lot of money if done right. You need some clout. A great book. An award. Some credibility. Something interesting, useful, and helpful to say.
But there are thousands of writers like me out there, wanting to learn from established authors with a mastery of their craft.
In the digital age of education, you don’t need to starve for your art with 20 people in your workshop. You can create a workshop and sell tickets to thousands and thousands of people.
In the digital future, small worlds can scale. Because there are thousands of little pockets of like-minded individuals that can find each other online.
Feel free to contact me for some strategic direction.
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