Next week I will be giving one of the featured talks at the UB Tech Conference in Orlando called “Higher Education Gets Flattened” and the timing couldn’t be better. I have been talking about this topic for the past 6 years but two interesting developments in recent weeks illustrate some of the fundamental changes coming to higher ed.  First was the news that students in competency-based academic programs would be eligible for federal financial aid.  This is a big deal, and will help enable a shift from “time served to stuff learned.”  Second was the announcement that Coursera is bringing online courses to 64-campus SUNY university system.  SUNY will be using Coursera as the platform for “Open SUNY” which hopes to enroll 100,000 new students in the coming years.  Consider the following quote:

Coursera suggests that MOOCs could serve as for-credit courses, and SUNY — which currently enrolls nearly half of a million students — believes that one day students could earn upward of 1/3 of their credits from outside sources, such as MOOCs.

IMHO, the historical importance of companies like Coursera is that they represent a move from a vertically integrated model to a horizontal model.  While the unbundling of higher education has been underway for quite some time, it has been primarily in student services such as housing and dining. Now we are seeing the unbundling of the core of the academic enterprise with companies like Coursera aggregating classes from multiple universities into a single platform.  As I talk with my colleagues who work in higher education,  many are completely unaware of the changes going on, and how quickly private companies are moving into this space.  While Coursera, Udacity and edX are on their radar, innovative companies like straighterline, 2U, mooc2degree, degreed, and Knewton go completely unnoticed.

In Orlando, I will be unveiling a completely updated version of my talk on higher getting flattened.  Questions I’ll be exploring include:

  • What happens when MOOC’s are accepted as credit thus breaking the fundamental business model of higher education?
  • What happens when colleges and universities no longer have a monopoly on credentialing?
  • Will technology enable the disintermediation of higher ed by enabling world class faculty to teach courses and provide credentials accepted by employers, all outside the traditional college campus?
  • Will more faculty become free agents and align themselves with private companies like Coursera or Udacity instead of a single college or university?
  • What happens when students no longer take classes at a primary campus but from several institutions completing the move from mass education to my education.
  • Will the credit hour lose it’s place as the primary currency of higher education?  (Stuff learned becomes more important than time served)

We are witnessing a major shift in the higher education landscape and it is happening much quicker than even I expected.  My message to those who want to save the status quo – good luck with that.  The flattening of higher education is underway and that’s a good thing.  We have an opportunity to reshape higher education by utilize technology to improve teaching and learning, to improve access, to better prepare our children for the 21st century, and to do so in a more cost-effective manner.