Tile Setters, College Professors, and the Future of Higher Education

There are big changes afoot in the world of higher education.  This Washington Post story tries to highlight them by drawing parallels between higher education and the newspaper industry, but I think the analogy falls down quickly.

As many online commentators have pointed out, a good college experience has always involved much more interaction with both the experts (professors) and peers than reading a newspaper.  What most of them miss is that the very fact that they are discussing the article online is a reminder that there may already be reasonable substitutes for those interactions.

The mistake most are making is comparing today’s online learning experience to today’s premium college experience. I think its better to consider all those people who have no access to today’s premium college experience. Compare today’s online learning experience to no learning experience at all, or to having to fit whatever the nearest community college is offering into your schedule (not to knock community colleges).

This competition with non-consumption is a classic pattern in disruptive innovation, Over time it leads to improvements that gradually eat into more and more of the existing market. The existing providers react by focusing on their strengths and best customers and moving upmarket. Often they pat themselves on the back for the business they gave up, because the margins serving those customers were often lower. This works for a while, but at some point, the upstart has eaten so much of the market that there just aren’t enough upmarket customers any more.

You may balk at my use of the lingo of the market to describe higher education, but try to get past that.  Think about the dynamic I’ve described in the context of, say, a small liberal arts college.  At first this probably has no impact on them at all. An education consisting of taped or webcast lectures, and interacting with fellow students and professors over instant messaging, chat rooms, discussion boards and email seems so far removed from the experience at a top tier residential liberal arts college that its hard to compare them.

Jump forward a few years and things start to look different.  Cultures start to form at different virtual campuses.  “Graduates” end up sticking around to learn new things, and at the same time, sometimes end up in the role of professor.  At first, most virtual campuses and their cultures evolve around people who are picking up a class here and there, but the most dedicated students get better at finding each other online they get better at using the online medium and start shaping it to their needs.

At this point, maybe prestigious small liberal arts colleges notice that they loose a few prospects to these online communities, but they brush it off. What they offer is still so clearly superior, and those most likely to choose an online alternative tend to be marginal admittees anyway. They may not have enough money to pay for tuition, or their high school record is spotty, or their high school didn’t have high academic standards.

I’m sure some have doubts that it will ever get to that point, and maybe it won’t, but if it does, consider the toll it could take on diversity goals (race, culture, income, first in family to go to college, etc).  Prestige schools will look, even more, like bastions of privilege and suddenly they loose more of their appeal.

It doesn’t have to happen , but its a pattern that repeats itself again and again. The best way to avoid repeating it is to vigorously avoid complacency, to avoid dismissing seemingly inconsequential threats without really understanding them, to be willing to take a path that seems to threaten your organization’s most successful programs.

Perhaps I should leave it at that, but I want to close instead by drawing on an anecdote.  A few years ago my brother decided he’d save money on his new house by doing much of the work on a guest bathroom himself. In the process, he found an online forum with information and advice on doing tile work. The forum brought together professionals who were happy to share their expertise with people like my brother. He found it invaluable to his project. He got advice on equipment and techniques that made the work so much easier and smoother. I think anyone who has really gone looking online for information on how to do something has had a similar experience at least once.

I mention this to try and cut through skepticism about whether an online college experience could ever approach the value of an on-campus college experience.  Do tile-setters and home improvers really know something about learning online that college professors and college students can’t learn?

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