Disrupting Higher Education?

Talking about the university system as if it’s doomed is fairly common. Here’s an article from three years ago outlining some common metaphors about the end of the post secondary system. The author’s disdain for them has been proven right so far. And yes, there are some for profit colleges running into problems because they were going for the quick money and shareholder support rather than looking at the long view the established PSIs have. And yes a small liberal arts college decided that it would rather close than leverage their endowment to reinvent itself. Whether that was a good or bad idea isn’t the point here.

The most important thing to remember about all of this is that we wont wake up one day with the university system crumbling or even disrupted. There will be warning signs.

The first reason for this is that universities generally take the long view. They have the momentum, backing, public mind share, and in many cases the endowment to withstand buffeting and giving them the time to adapt and change. Yes universities adapt. The larger and older they are the slower they may change but if you look at the smaller universities now and the same schools from 20 years ago you’ll see a drastic shift.

But the second is that disruption happens when you can meet the same needs better than the current ecosystem. Facebook didn’t win because it was new, Facebook won because it figured out what people wanted and needed and gave it to people better. Google became the most popular search engine by being better, not by being newer.

So what do people go to post secondary for? I feel that its three things. Hard skills (content), soft skills (process), and building/learning to build a personal network (community).

MOOCs are a great way to learn content. But they assume you already know or can handle the process. That’s why the autodidacts of the world don’t see a reason for college if there are moocs around. Twenty years ago they felt the same thing about the internet. Thirty years ago they felt the same thing about public libraries. The truth is that the majority of the world needs training on how to think. And as I’ve said before a lot of high school and early post secondary is mental weight lifting. The content isn’t as important as the process you go through as you learn the content.

Content is the easiest thing to replicate from a post secondary education. You can always work on making it easier to access. But there’s a sign of when its easier to train the content training outside of higher ed. And that’s internal corporate training.

Hard skills are easier to train with computers and technology than soft skills so the first place disrupted should be the colleges as employers go to do in house training with technology as the content distribution system. But were seeing the opposite. Employers are trying to offload more training into the post secondary system.   Which implies that it’s more cost effective to hire a higher paid already trained person than to hire straight from high school and do the training yourself. That will be the first warning sign, an increase of companies hiring those without any post secondary and training internally. But employers understand that its more than just hard skills that are needed, more and more they’re asking for soft skills. And yes colleges and universities need to get better at delivering but if they weren’t doing better than companies themselves could there wouldn’t be a demand for post secondary educated people. Just because you want a better bicycle for the amount you’re paying doesn’t mean you’re going to learn to build one yourself.

Soft skills are harder to replace because its hard to figure out just how they fit together. Why does essay writing make you a better general writer? It doesn’t. Learning to write for an audience and crafting your writing toward that particular audience does and the essay format is one method of teaching that. So how do you teach that without a human audience at the other end of the writing? How do you learn to speak and communicate with humans except by speaking to and communicating with humans? How do you learn to collaborate without collaborating? Soft skills are learned through practice and correction. Time management, is a hard skill to learn without a corrective mechanism. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way of teaching these. Colleges and universities are currently working on being more intentional in training soft skills. As more research is done into it the possibility of a better way outside the post secondary system becomes more likely. In order to improve upon or replace something you either have to understand it or get lucky.

Other than hard skills (easy to disrupt) and soft skills (harder to disrupt, but not impossible) there is the community. Without even knowing it time spent socializing or doing extra curricular or co curricular activities helps students learn. I’m separating this from soft skills because it’s a big reason universities exist. There are business schools that will teach you the same hard and soft skills as Harvard Business School but you wont see the wait-list get any shorter there. Business people understand the importance of a strong network. And shared activity is what builds a strong network. Even at a community college through socializing you’re learning how to build a group of friends and acquaintances based on shared interests and goals rather than on location. And that’s a skill that social networks emulates but hasn’t been able to replace.

Disruption happens when you meet the same needs better than the current ecosystem. And there will be warning signs. Amazon was around for years before Borders went out of business. And Chapters/Indigo have managed to adapt during that same time. There were warning signs and some paid heed and learned and others crashed. As for the newspaper industry, it crashed not because of the internet but because they did only three things well – sell ads, classifieds, and present news. All three of which are easy to replicate.

That doesn’t mean that soft skills and community cant be replaced, just that post secondary has time to adapt. As they have been adapting for hundreds of years. And likely will for hundreds more.

  • Kim Kirby

    Good thoughts, I agree and disagree all in the same time. If an online university degree was free or substantially cheaper, I believe that would cause disruption. But it’s not, nor will it be and for that reason traditional universities will always be needed, in order to obtain the almighty piece of paper that states you’re qualified. That would be the fourth reason people go to university, because some doors just can’t be opened without it. There is a huge difference between going to university for the piece of paper and going for the learning.

    On the learning end of the spectrum, I much prefer to interact face to face. There is an intrinsic value to human interaction that not even video-conferencing can simulate. Were it not for the cost, I would be a lifelong university student. In my opinion no amount of readily available internet information can substitute for the exchange of thoughts that occurs when a group of people gather in person within a university setting.

    • That’s exactly my point. It’s not that education can’t be disrupted it’s that what has been touted as disruptive isn’t enough.

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