We can see the contours of the revolution in higher education

Transformation of the music industry is old news. Retail, publishing, and newspaper industries are changing before our very eyes.  The Wall Street Journal described that Target stores are now working to deal with the ‘showrooming’  factor in their stores. That’s the trend that is devastating big box electronic stores (Best Buy) and booksellers (remember Borders?).

Up next?  Well, maybe not next but soon, will be higher education.

Here’s three articles that paint the picture:

Glenn Reynolds has long been talking about a higher education bubble. Yes, bubble, as in real estate bubble.  He described the bubble back in August 2010 in Further thoughts on the higher education bubble.

He had previously started discussing the higher ed bubble. ( I tried to look at the earlier article, but it crashed my browser.)  In the August article he summarized the problem as:

Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.  And the past decades’ history of tuition growing much faster than the rate of inflation, with students and parents making up the difference via easy credit, is something that can’t go on forever.  Thus my prediction that it won’t.

The easy credit is gone. So what will sustain the tuition inflation?  Mr. Reynolds suggests it won’t continue.  The transition will be quite a shock to everyone.

Will technology scramble higher ed like it did music and publishing?


What could be a substitute for a college degree?

Other formats could develop that show the same things as a degree.

New forms of credentialling are in the works.  Richard Vedder, explains in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Beware: Alternative Certification is Coming, that several organizations are working to develop online competency testing resources.

What does a college degree do? It shows a certain skill level and amount of achievement to an employer.  Mr. Vedder says:

With regards to colleges, consumers typically have believed that there are no good substitutes–the only way a person can certify to potential employers that she/he is pretty bright, well educated, good at communicating, disciplined, etc., is by presenting a bachelor’s degree diploma. College graduates typically have these positive attributes more than others, so degrees serve as an important signaling device to employers, lowering the costs of learning about the traits of the applicant. Because of the lack of good substitutes, colleges face little outside competition and can raise prices more, given their quasi-monopoly status.

What if there is an alternative tool that shows those factors? In other words, some way to show that a person is reasonably bright, has grasped a basic amount of knowledge, can show up regularly, and complete assigned work on time.  If there is such a tool, then a college degree isn’t necessary.

If the alternative to that sheepskin certification is widely accepted by employers, then higher education as we know it will be drastically transformed.

That’s where the certification process could transform higher ed.

MIT is developing a process to put their academic courses on-line for free. If you pass a test, you get a ‘credential’, which shows you mastered that class.

See Kevin Carey’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency.

The first step in this process was putting courses online:

MITx is the next big step in the open-educational-resources movement that MIT helped start in 2001, when it began putting its course lecture notes, videos, and exams online, where anyone in the world could use them at no cost.

The new step in MIT’s approach is to document a person grasps the content:

Now MIT has decided to put the two together—free content and sophisticated online pedagogy­—and add a third, crucial ingredient: credentials. Beginning this spring, students will be able to take free, online courses offered through the MITx initiative. If they prove they’ve learned the materi­al, MITx will, for a small fee, give them a credential certifying as much.

So, you could accumulate a set of credentials from MITx and present them to an employer as a screening device, accomplishing the same thing as showing a college degree.

Methinks that higher ed is about to experience the same thing that hit music and publishing.

Good opportunity for people who cannot afford four years out of the job market and don’t have a spare $100,000 laying around.  Not so good for those who currently work in the industry.

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