The faint whisper of the air leaking from the higher education “bubble” turned into an audible hiss earlier this month when the American Council of Education (ACE) announced it was certifying five free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). As this accreditation trend grows, the hiss will become a gale force wind that will leave only the strongest universities and colleges standing.
Harvard, MIT, and Stanford and a host of other institutions are already offering hundreds of MOOCs for free through platforms such as edX, Coursera and Udacity. The significance of ACE’s decision is that students who take these courses can now receive college credit for nothing but the cost of that exam—provided they pass the test.
The implication is profound. Countless students, who in the past had no alternative but to “purchase” courses from their local university, can now take free classes and have their knowledge certified for a low fee.
If thousands and eventually millions of students are no longer required to take courses on campus at a heavily inflated price (college tuition has exceeded the rate of inflation by 400 percent since the early 1980s), the very foundation of the modern university is imperiled.
Critics of online education and MOOCs may delude themselves by thinking an online course can never offer the same level of intimacy or interaction as a traditional college course but they are missing a key component of the MOOC movement: analytics.
What Harvard and other MOOC providers understand is that every time a student interacts with the material on an online course, she provides the institution feedback that allows it to learn a little more about how that student learns. Armed with this information they can then offer future courses designed not only to meet that individual’s specific educational needs but which are delivered in a manner personally tailored to his or her unique learning style.
Why does this matter? Because Harvard and the MOOC providers aren’t interested in having a student for just the next four years, they want a student for the next 50 years.
The world is changing at warp speed and, in many fields, knowledge is becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate. The shelf life of a college degree is getting shorter and, as it is, the value of traditional four-year degree is being eroded.
Such change obviously puts an increased emphasis on life-long and “on-the-job” learning and it is here that Harvard and a handful of other universities will assert their dominance. Many of these institutions are already blessed with world-class reputations, facilities, campuses and professors that will continue to attract thousand students who want and can afford an elite college campus experience. But these institutions are not interested in prospering under the “old school” model. They want to deliver a top-rate education to millions of students around the world for the rest of their lives—and they now have a disruptive business model that allows them to achieve this goal.
Imagine Harvard charges a $100 accrediting fee to every student who takes one of its free courses. If one million students—students who formerly populated state universities and colleges—opt instead to take just one accredited course a year from Harvard that amounts to $100 million a year.
Assuming Harvard and the others use a portion of this money to continue to attract “superstar” professors as well as create even more interactive, engaging and personalized online courses, it isn’t hard to see how Harvard and the other leading MOOC providers will dominant the future of higher education.
Jack Uldrich is a futurist and author. His latest book is Foresight 20/20: A Futurist Explores the Trends Transforming Tomorrow.