Knowledge is Power


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.

9 thoughts on “Knowledge is Power

  1. I KNEW you were a freaking revolutionary! Anyway, this very case scenario occurred to me just the other day when contemplating the cost of sending three kids to college when all I could think about was WHY THE HELL ISN’T KNOWLEDGE FREE?!?! Who in the world came up with the idea of locking all this up in an ivory tower where only the rich and the children of those with three mortgages can get to it?

    • Hey! You are alive.

      I’ve been having the same thoughts about putting our 2 through college. Teaching courses at a local university has also opened my eyes to the inherent hypocrisy of the University model. It’s bound to fail, as many very smart professors see it the same way we do.

      As Sister Josepha used to say about premartial sex, why buy the cow when they give the milk away for free?

      Although I never understood the connection between Catholicism and bestiality.

  2. As one who is over the hump and out of the economy in general, I have a couple of thoughts.

    We have to figure out a way to lower the cost for academically qualified students who by chance come from a deprived background.

    We also have keep the stupid spawn of the wealthy and legacy students from clogging up the system. We already have too many unqualified college graduates and not enough trade school graduates (remember trade schools?).

    And another thing that always pissed me off! was paying big dollars for graduate credits and sit in the same class as undergrads paying half. What the hell is that all about?

    Thank you, I am going to my Growlery now.

    • I work with a couple non-profits that work to get academically qualified, but economically disadvantaged students into college. I’m also setting up an internship program with our local community college, to employ students who are transferring to a 4 year program. As an employer, I would much rather hire someone working their way through college, than some dumb rich kid from an Ivy League school.

      Not only do we need more trade school grads, we need more students to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) programs. Our corporate foundation has been focusing on that mission for several years now, and we’ve worked with a lot of great non-profit organizations.

      Of course, we also move jobs to Asian backwaters where we can exploit the local poor. Life is full of paradoxes.

      • Ok, this is too high falutin’ for me. My plan involved clubbing the rich over the head, skinning them for pelts and then wearing it as a garment to scare the remaining elite into compliance.
        You can’t smash the system with out brutal violence and barbaric methods.

  3. IIf there are typos in this post it’s because I can’t see the comment window I am typing in…
    I am new to your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it! On the subject of the University experience – otherwise known as the Ivory Tower – I think the reason it persists is because without it many of our children would not go to college and actually finish… We pay the price so that we can sort of lock them into it. I site Academicearth and Khan academy as examples of clear portals of free access to great content, but without the beer binges and late-night pizza runs what fun is a that?

    I worked two or three jobs to get through college and paid my own way. It took years too long to graduate but I still look fondly at the experience … One which would have been significantly diminished if it had occurred entirely in front of a lonely screen.

    However, given that I am getting ready to send two kids to college myself, I will say that they better have a plan in mind because we’re not sending me away to some ivory tower for a four year party lol. What strikes me of late about the whole college process is the crazy inflatedness of scholarships vs tuition. Seems a little ponzi-ish to me that a kid who can’t get a good scholarship at a very good state school can get a huge scholarship at a second-tier private school and still end up paying $40k a year…. So for my kids a great state u is the game plan!

    • Hey Kellie Welcome! Don’t worry about the typo’s, I can see the screen and I still butcher words. Thanks for visiting, make yourself comfortable. Can I get you some coffee?

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