Financial pressure and new technologies have combined to create new opportunities for innovation in the higher education sector. Forged by the struggles of the Great Recession and fostered by technology, cracks have opened in the traditional, age-old structures of higher education, according to Justin Pope of Associated Press.
The traditional system simply costs too much and accomplishes too little, which has sparked innovations like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are increasingly popular among students around the world due to their availability and cost — which in most cases is free.
Higher education is becoming “unbundled.” Individual classes and degrees are losing their connections to single institutions, in much the same way iTunes has unbundled songs from whole albums, and the Internet is increasingly unbundling television shows and networks from bulky cable packages.
MOOCs are not only attractive in the developed countries, but may be even more consequential in developing countries where mass higher education is new and changes could be built into emerging systems.
Online course provider edX offered its first MOOC in Circuits and Electronics last spring, which attracted a total of 154,000 students worldwide. Currently, edX has 900,000 students and more than 30 courses. Coursera has an even broader reach of 3.5 million students, 370 courses and 69 partner institutions.
Khan Academy, based in Mountain View, California, services 6 million unique users a month from 216 countries — more students than all the other MOOC providers combined. There are 4,000-plus videos available on Khan Academy’s website, and while not full courses, they’re a connected series of free, bite-sized lessons of about 10 minutes each.
“We’ve organized higher education into this factory model where we bring a group of students in post-high school and march them through more or less in lock-step,” says Demillo, the Georgia Tech professor and author of “Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.” “People that don’t conform are rejected from the factory and people that make it through are stamped with a degree.”
Arizona State University President Michael Crow also believes that innovation can improve and scale up teaching — and make better use of time. He says it would be a “fatal error” to totally unbundle the college degree not just from the institution but from the importance of interacting with human faculty.
The factory model definitely has its advantages: Peer pressure and paying tuition provide incentive for students to stick with classes. By contrast, roughly 90% of people who sign up for MOOCs do not complete them, and the next step for the higher education sector will be to combine the efficiency, affordability and scalability of the online model with improved completion and attainment.