The 1,500 attendees here- up from a few hundred in recent years – agreed on the surprising origins of this spring-like moment: the wintry depths of the financial crisis that struck five years ago.

“People started to say, `How do we do more with the resources we have?'” said Jim Shelton, the U.S. Department of Education’s top innovation guru. “Technology has almost always answered that question for other sectors.”

Richard Demillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, puts it another way: The Great Recession exposed structural flaws in higher education. The system simply cost too much and accomplished too little.

“Everything from cost to price to the mission of universities kind of went under the microscope,” Demillo said. “Enter technology.”

What does this wave of educational innovation entail? To be sure, it includes the MOOCs and all sorts of “adaptive learning” software that promises to teach and measure some things better and more cheaply than a human teacher. The idea is to free up teachers for what they do best, not replace them, advocates insist, though many people are skeptical.

But in some ways, the innovation is broader than the technology itself, which many call cool but not yet revolutionary.

Recent financial pressures and these new technologies are opening cracks in traditional, age-old structures of higher education. Terms like “credit hour” and even the definition of what it means to be a college are in flux.

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.

“The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told `You can’t do that,” said Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. “I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet. Why can’t I learn as well?”


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