Last May, Harvard and MIT announced a $60 million partnership that would provide free online courses to 600,000 students worldwide. That this came on the heels of an experiment in which former Stanford professor (and now co-founder of the Udacity.com online classroom platform) Sebastian Thrun made his “Introduction to AI” course available for free online in the fall of 2011 says something. The current model of providing a college education or postsecondary training – for-profit, public, community college or otherwise – will be dead for most students by 2030.
What will this new form of higher education look like? Will students who can now take a couple of Harvard or MIT online courses for free so overwhelm these schools that paying customers will also demand a free online education, and lead to the disintegration of higher education as we know it?
The answer lies somewhere in between higher education feast and famine. For the selected few, Ivy League and other elite institutions will continue to thrive, no matter the costs. Parents will continue to send their kids to Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown – and students will enthusiastically attend them – for far more than a degree. The social networks that students will build at these universities and use as alumni for jobs, careers and even marriages easily outweigh the high cost of tuition. Just ask the Obamas.
For most college students, though, edX is but the tip of the spear. Ultimately, a decade or so from now, going to college will be as simple as clicking on an app on your iPhone, iPad, or whatever an Apple, a Google or some other corporation comes up with next.
No one institution or single university collaboration can take charge of this transition to a national and international online higher education experience, even with edX’s implementation. But with an Apple or a Google’s history of collaboration, technical expertise, and innovative vision, they can pull off the moving of the higher education platform to an accredited application. One that even Harvard, MIT and Oxford could get behind – though they may have to hold their noses at first.
By the time this transition is complete, online college – or, dare I say, iCollege – will look more like a combination of EA Sports’ Madden NFL ’13, Skype, Twitter and Facebook than the standard threaded discussions and video recordings we have today. It will be a process where any professor could be put in a lab with sensors and a classroom full of students asking every possible question and providing every possible answer to a series of topics that would add up to a course. And an Apple or a Google could do this over and over again for the thousands of possible courses an undergraduate student could take, in the US or anywhere in the world.
That alone would make this a decent revolution, at least technologically. Combining it with Apple’s or Google’s ability to negotiate agreements with accrediting agencies and with universities across the country, though, would make iCollege an all-out revolution. Because of these partnerships, the future iCollege would be light-years beyond the new edX, as this would enable students to transfer their credits to a UC Berkeley, Harvard or New York University if they so chose to take an in-person course whenever necessary.
This could be a one-time $500 million investment that could yield tens of billions in profits annually. In the process, it would make higher education much cheaper, more democratic and less exploitive of students and government resources. For an industry or job-related certificate: $5,000. For a two-year or associate’s degree: $10,000. For a four-year degree: $24,000.
There would be casualties, of course. Testing entities like the College Board, Educational Testing Service, and ACT will somehow have to adapt to this democratization of higher education or die out. The current set of for-profit institutions, community colleges and large state public institutions will have to become specialists in specific career training activities, partner within an iCollege consortium, or go out of business. Like it or not, this is the road that American and international higher education is on, one rapid stride after another. But it’s all for the better. Or at least, it could be?