I came across an interesting article on the web today (boy if I had a $1 for every time I’ve said that). It concerned online education, and the transformation of learning. Now online courses are nothing new. I believe they have been around almost since the beginning of the internet. In fact, if you are purely interested in learning for its own sake you can access courses from some of the leading academic minds at world renowned universities like MIT, NYU, and Stanford for free. While the quality of the online course materials can be a little uneven, the fact exists, the information is there and it is free for the taking.
This has always interested me because of the paradox that it presents. Most academics that I know have a love for learning, and are advocates of keeping knowledge accessible and available to all. However, the very concept of the University is the exact opposite. By making knowledge scarce the University can control who gains access to it. This is a business model that is not much different than a medieval guild’s. (or Apple for that matter.) By controlling the accreditation process, the University can grant you the license to practice as a knowledge expert in your field. Think of Doctor’s, Lawyer’s, Nurses, and most other professions. No matter how knowledgeable or brilliant a person may be, they cannot practice their profession without licensure.
Which brings me to the rub of online education. Making the information free and available is wonderful, but without certification from a socially recognized institution you may as well be a freelance surgeon. No one is going to believe you, or give you a chance to practice in your field. Since the rise of online education the Academic world has been in conflict over who has the right to grant such certification, and how much worth can be attached to it. The reluctance of traditional Universities to embrace online degree programs led to the creation of “for profit” schools like University of Phoenix, DeVry, Capella, etc.
The reputation of for profit schools, is that of a “diploma mill”. A place with low standard that will grant you the certification for a price. Given the outrageous cost of traditional colleges, the for profit schools had a large, untapped market of students to draw upon. However, the for profit schools, despite their embrace of online knowledge delivery still has the same business model as the traditional University. Limited access of a commodity in demand, for a price.
For all the bickering in Academia about the role of for profit institutions, most of the arguments can be reduced to just disagreements over the price & value of the degree. That is why traditional Universities eventually embraced online courses. It wasn’t so much the methodology they objected to, as to the quality of the end product versus the price. The result has been a peaceful co-existence of both for profit, and traditional University models.
That is all about to change.
All that is needed is for one reputable, and well known University to begin granting degrees to students who take their courses free and online, for the whole business model to collapse. With each passing year that day gets closer and closer. The most recent news is the move by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to grant certification to online graduates, for a small fee.
While the MITx certificate is not the same as their diploma, the academic rigor of the program will be. Furthermore, MIT has the credibility to back that up, something that a DeVry, or University of Phoenix will never have. It will not be long now before other institutions or employers begin to recognize this new “degree”, and once that happens it is all over for the University as we know it.
Other institutions will follow MIT’s lead, and before long the line between MIT and MITx will blur to the point of irrelevance. The lure of a virtually unlimited base of students, and the near total elimination of the overhead cost associated with courses will be too much for University administrators to resist. They can charge less for these degrees, but make it up on the sheer volume. Now no market is unlimited. (There are only 7 billion people in the world.) So sooner or later it will become saturated. When that happens the price will begin to fall. It will become a race to the bottom, where only the largest survive. Which institutions will it be? Who is going to become the Walmart of Colleges?
My prediction is that this will happen within the decade.
My advice to academics. Start saving for retirement, and consider learning a secondary trade.
My advice to students. Don’t plan on becoming a college professor, unless you are willing to compete for a job managing online course content with several thousand unemployed PhD’s.
My advice to University Administrators. Start planning for the future today and figure out how your institution is going to survive the earthquake. The sooner you embrace it, the more likely you’ll survive.