Peering into the Crystal Ball

In recent years, there have been quite a few books on the ways in which innovation will change higher education. Richard DeMillo’s Abelard to Apple is, I think, the most intriguing one yet. In it, the author, who has held numerous posts in the academic world (most recently as dean of computing at Georgia Tech) and in business (Hewlett-Packard’s chief technology officer), combines his deep knowledge of both the online world and the history of higher education.

He concludes that dramatic change is going to transform higher education over the next few decades. Many colleges, he writes, “will not survive the coming changes.” Even those that do survive won’t survive intact because the new competitive marketplace will create “a new set of rules and a very different conception of the value of universities in the twenty-first century.”

Let’s start with some history.

The Abelard in the book’s title is Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French monk who is known mostly for a disastrous love affair, but is important in the history of higher education for drawing many students from across Europe to his lectures. Abelard was not part of any university, but attracted students eager to learn his reasoning skills. “He was persecuted literally to his last breath,” DeMillo writes, “but his insistence on freedom to criticize . . . left a lasting impression on the communities of teachers that would become the first universities.”

Those universities initially grew mainly in Italy and were very student-centered. They were loose associations of pupils and masters. The former studied (and paid) as long as they thought it was worth their while.  Over time, however, the institutions became more rigid and faculty-centered. “Free-flowing dialog between undisciplined, demanding students and charismatic masters was replaced with austere, unpleasant classrooms, aloof professors, and the compulsion of a classical core curriculum,” DeMillo informs us.

That pretty well sums up the way he sees the situation today. Colleges and universities have been able to get away with offering students an educational product that is much to the liking of the faculty and the well-being of the institution. They became protective, rigid, and extravagant but didn’t suffer because students didn’t have any good alternatives.

But now they do. Quality online instruction is growing by leaps and bounds. What had been a seller’s market for centuries is going to quickly become a buyer’s market. Only those schools that do these three things will survive, DeMillo contends:

  1. Focus on value—that is, delivering what students want based on their skills and aspirations.
  2. Focus on costs—competing to minimize costs will be crucial (and painful for colleges used to a “couch potato” existence).
  3. Establish reputation—not just a place in the hierarchy, but an earned reputation for quality education that’s continually validated in the marketplace.

Unlike some educational insiders, DeMillo is not dismissive of the for-profit sector. Those schools are far more attuned to student wants because that’s how they derive their revenue. Also, they are more nimble because they aren’t tied down with cumbersome decision-making structures and the fear that doing something might upset their accreditation agency. 

Whether non-profit or for-profit, institutions of higher education in the future will need to figure out “how to capture the passion” of students. That’s going to become increasingly difficult because students will be attracted to learning opportunities that exist independent of institutions. Online education (the Apple in the title), DeMillo believes, is going to take us back in the direction of Abelard—of sttudents studying what truly interests them and possibly “hacking” their degrees.

Not being much of a computer guy, I thought “hacking” was exclusively a negative term, but I learned that it has two meanings. Bad hacking is breaking into someone else’s computer system for nefarious purposes, but good hacking means piecing together an elegant computer solution by “changing, dissecting, and combining old tools to get a new tool that is better and more effective.” Before long, DeMillo thinks, students will be able to “hack” degrees by cobbling together courses from diverse places such as iTunes U, the Open University, MIT’s open courseware.

Subsequent to the publication of the book, MIT announced plans to allow non-students to earn certificates in its courses. According to this December 19 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, MIT is going to give everyone free access to an online course “platform” that will allow individuals to “watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests.”  Those students who think they have mastered the material will be able to attempt an examination (offered by a separate entity within MIT) to show their comprehension.

This development is not going to upset the higher education applecart overnight, but it conforms perfectly to DeMillo’s theme that dramatic change is just around the bend for higher education. Learning won’t long remain confined to the traditional delivery mode of professors lecturing to enrolled, paying students.

Open courseware is not the only way online learning is going to change higher education. DeMillo observes that whereas the traditional college class involves the broadcasting of information from the professor to (doubtfully alert) students, blogs involve rich connection networks where students and instructors interact and share their questions and information.

In that regard, DeMillo points to a little-known school where there is great educational ferment: “At the University of Mary Washington, learning takes place in the digital spaces engineered by Jim Groom and his band of Edupunks. At UMW, learning takes place in blogs.”

Yes, blogs.

There are more than 2,500 public blogs at the school. Professors don’t have to make their course material available to outsiders, but for each class there is a blog. (Here is one example.) Students see the blogs as a “space to do work” that enables them to easily connect with their professors and other students. The result is vibrant communities of learners, sometimes including strangers. DeMillo writes that it’s “not uncommon for an outsider to stumble into a UMW blog, find that there are interesting people to talk to, and jump uninvited into the middle of a conversation.”

It seems to me that DeMillo is saying something very Hayekian—that the Internet is dissolving old rigidities so that spontaneous order can create more effective and less costly educational modes. Our higher education system is just as vulnerable to that as was the old telephone industry. Most of our universities, he says, are “rigid and self-satisfied” under leaders who believe that they can “hold outside forces at bay and retain what they’ve had in the past.” Some years from now, they’ll look back and see how mistaken they were.

Talk about a revolution in higher education has been around long enough that many dismiss it. To those people, and indeed to everyone who is interested in higher education, I say, “Read this book and then think about the future.”