Living as I do in an Ivy League university town, one tends to take for granted the way the institution dominates the ebb and flow of life here. Fall is defined not just by the browning leaves, but by the return of bright-faced students, inter-collegiate football games and the regatta on the river. The old and venerable college buildings have been here for nearly three hundred years, and look like they will easily last another three hundred more. But will the institution last? Or will it be another casualty of the internet, just as brick-and-mortar retail, or the publishing industry?
According to Nathan Harden of American Interest, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, will dominate the education of the future, and “in fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist.” As we have seen, the internet is a great destroyer of any industry whose traditional business model is based on the sale of information — witness what is happening to the publishing industry, for instance — and the university system might next in line for annihilation.
Stuart Butler, a Brookings scholar, who has written extensively on MOOCs, is not so harsh. He feels that the effect of MOOCs will be transformational, and change the business model of higher education as we know it. There is much scrutiny of the higher education model, with many questioning its value in today’s day and age, especially since the rate of increase of tuition is now outstripping inflation. With cost of tuition rising exponentially, and students not finding jobs at the level required to pay back the cost of tuition/student loans, we could soon find ourselves in a higher education bubble, akin to the recent housing bubble. MOOCs could be a way out, giving students access to high quality teaching at a much cheaper rate. This has the potential to break open the existing traditional market, Butler says, and on a larger scale, form an existential threat to the traditional business model of higher education that has been in existence for almost 2,000 years.
There is certainly strong and growing interest in MOOCs — an average MOOC enrolls about 43,000 students, and MOOCs now enroll students at a faster rate than traditional higher ed enrollment. Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent to more than 7.1 million between 2010 and 2013, the latest period for which the fast-changing figures are available, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. However, only 10% of those enrolling in MOOCs complete the course. MOOCs are still a novelty, and probably that is why no one has as yet quantified the value of a MOOC, as they have traditional higher ed degrees.
Today, employers look at MOOC certificates as resume boosters only. I think the tipping point will happen when employers accept MOOCs in lieu of traditional universities courses. Recently, Udacity (a for-profit educational organization offering MOOCs) teamed up with AT&T to create a new online program, the nanodegree. This Udacity program can be completed in less than a year for 200 dollars a month. While in most ways similar to a regular MOOC, the biggest difference is that AT&T honors its partnership with Udacity by offering 100 paid internships to those who receive the degrees. AT&T has collaborated with Udacity to guide course materials and tailor the degree towards company needs.
If MOOCs replace traditional classroom teaching, whither the traditional university then? Maybe they will replicate the above AT&T-Udacity model, tying up with industries and companies to develop very customized, industry-specific or even company-specific courses that will be honored by the industry or company concerned. In addition to transforming traditional information-based industries, the internet is also very good at unbundling services, so maybe colleges will shift their focus to providing customized ‘learning’ packages for their students — a mix of MOOCs and traditional campus experiences.
Several scenarios are being bandied about the future of the traditional university. Some experts believe that most average universities will collapse, and only the few best ones survive.
Another probable scenario could be MOOCs and traditional college education co-existing side by side, each fulfilling its separate role.
As has happened in several other industries, a transformation of the traditional university model will have both victors and victims. And as in other industries, only those who see the writing on the wall and change their business model to suit the new requirements will survive.
And now, excuse me while I go enjoy the broad leafy walks of my university town while the venerable institution still stands