Innovation: experts are the last to know
As a parent, I've heard tales for years about the cost of college and how it is rising rapidly. This isn't going to be a screed about college costs, but with two prospective students looking at some of the best colleges in the country, it could be. What my tours on college campuses have told me, however, is that much of what is important about education is going missing, and much of what isn't important is receiving focus and funds. Take, for example, new buildings. While there may be a dearth of construction in many regions and industries in the US, you cannot step foot on a college campus today without encountering construction. I've been on a number of college campuses this spring and fall, and without fail there is construction everywhere. New class buildings, new dorms, new administration buildings. The money is flowing fast and furious into more and more construction, at a time when place and structure matter less and less to education. As another article points out, virtual education is growing. My alma mater, UVA, just experienced a heart-wrenching and embarrassing firing and rehiring of the president of the university, most of which was based how quickly the university can move to place more courses, and receive more funds, from online education.
Every college campus I've set foot on has gleaming new facilities which are very attractive, but many of those facilities don't do much to increase education. And, simultaneously, the shift is on to virtual education, from Khan Academy to Coursera. It is only a matter of time before major universities offer full degrees to people who never step foot on campus. I suggested in a presentation several years ago to a university that the ultimate MBA is one where my finance courses are from Wharton, my marketing courses are from Kellogg and my entrepreneurial classes are from UT-Austin. What would people pay for an MBA made up of the best of what the best programs have to offer?
While I promised not to focus on cost, cost opens up another innovation factor. Increasingly, people can't afford college, and are evaluating the cost effectiveness of college versus taking a job. When this happens, the educational system is ripe for disruption, and virtual programs offer another advantage. A teacher in a classroom can teach at most 500 people at once. On the internet the same instructor can teach thousands of people simultaneously, and can do so from home if he or she decides to. Costs are lower, and spread across far more individuals. Christensen pointed out that most disruption happens from products or offerings which provide less function or fewer features than the existing competition. When colleges scoff at online learning, they are simply repeating what GM and Ford had to say about Toyota and Honda in the early days of market entry.
Experts are often the last to know when innovation is about to disrupt their market. They resist the signals that don't agree with their long-held beliefs and information. They cling to the way things have always been. The collegiate education is traditionally based on coming to an iconic place, soaking up knowledge from fellow students and faculty. That model has worked for over a thousand years, and will continue to thrive, but increasingly it will come under pressure as "place" becomes less important and costs open opportunities for disruption of the model.
Gandhi's maxim works especially well here. Academics who sense the need to change and are currently experimenting with online courses are encountering the first phase of change. Gandhi said that first they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win. The first experiments by faculty in major universities in online education were considered experiments, until Stanford demonstrated they could teach programming to over 150,000 people. Then the faculty and staff fought the outrageous dismissal of the UVA president, and rightly so, but over the issue of speed to market and the shift toward online education. Khan Academy has already had an impact on primary and secondary education, with new "flip schools" underway, and Phoenix and other for-profit universities have demonstrated that online learning has potential.
My daughters represent the generation that is the tipping point. Ten years from now it won't be at all unusual for "freshmen" to take classes from home for a year or two, remotely, and then matriculate on a university campus their junior or senior year. It won't be unusual for an individual to achieve a bachelor's or master's degree from a Stanford, a University of Chicago, or a Princeton without setting foot on campus. There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth through the change, but it will happen. And the experts who dictate the norms of education will be the last to know.