In any ecosystem, if one waits long enough, eventually a cataclysmic disruption occurs. Examples range from ice ages to digital cameras and mobile phones. When an environment becomes out of balance or a system is too reliant on archaic technology, something never-before-seen will come and change the game.
The final years at Blockbuster Video, Kodak Corporation, and Toys “R” Us, all share the consistent systemic failure to respond to disruptive threats: a willful ignorance to reexamine and adjust their product, services, and business model. Higher education is behaving much the same way. Until institutions acknowledge both the impending disruptive threat and the risk of not appropriately responding, higher ed remains a vulnerable enterprise.
Since the proliferation of the internet and digitization of information, we have witnessed several warning signs. Online course delivery, e-textbooks, the rise and fall of large for-profit institutions, MOOCS, certificates, and micro-credentialing have each commanded attention in the past two decades. While some of these innovations have persisted and some failed, each represents a foreshock prior to a large seismic event that we have not yet experienced.
An unchanging model
A longitudinal look at American higher education shows the business model remains unchanged. Institutions continue to cyclically recruit (a dwindling number of) students and steward them through a one-size-fits-all curriculum and delivery model that much resembles the student experience at Harvard University in 1636. Students arrive in late August, take four or five classes each semester and go home in May. After four years, a degree is granted. Though some classes are now hybrid, flipped, online, or leverage other high-impact practices, the overarching student experience is still the same.
In 2018, we live in an on-demand world. Consumers can start and stop television and movie content, purchase only the individual song they like, and are surrounded by digital assistants that can deliver the entirety of the internet through voice commands. Facebook reported 2.19 billion active monthly users in the first quarter of 2018, Amazon serves 310 million customers, Netflix has 100 million subscribers, and Google currently has seven unique products with over one billion monthly active users each. Collectively Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are known on Wall Street as the “FANG” stocks and share dominance of the tech sector. Though their stocks fluctuate every day, collectively the four FANGs are worth about $1.5 trillion, roughly equivalent to the entire GNP of Canada.
Any of the FANG companies, and even some of their less-well-positioned competitors, has the resources to purchase a university in financial distress, assume their accreditation and infrastructure, and begin delivering academic content and granting degrees. I highlight them not for their purchasing power, but because they have each changed the way we live, consume, expect, and demand content and services. Billions of college-aged people are already users, have linked their profile to their bank account, and have multiple networked devices through which they interact and consume information.
Dare we dream what will happen to most traditional universities if any of these unpredictable tech titans decides to service the growing global demand for higher education, which is predicted to reach 252 million students by 2025? If this happens, I argue higher ed will undergo a radical redesign, a metaphorical ice age, permanently disrupting the age-old model to which many faculty and institutions desperately cling.
A fine fairy tale, but what evidence suggests the FANG companies are even interested in higher education? Plenty. In January of 2018, Amazon hired Stanford University Professor Candace Thill to serve as director of learning science and engineering. Facebook has explored partnerships with for-profit content provider Udacity and tested features that could morph the social media platform into a learning management system. Facebook also quietly signed research agreements with 30 premiere research universities and has partnered with a number of community colleges to develop digital marketing curricula. Google Classroom streamlines assignments, boosts collaboration, and fosters seamless communication to make teaching more productive and meaningful. While designed for K-12, the product’s potential higher-ed applications are obvious, especially when coupled with Google’s G Suite for education. While Netflix has yet to show signs of interest in higher ed, textbook publisher Cengage recently adopted a Netflix-like unlimited subscription model in an effort to eclipse Pearson, its only real competition in the higher-ed publishing marketplace.
Each of the FANG companies uses big data analytics to customize the user experience. These platforms predictively personalize content based on algorithms derived from previous user behavior and demographic data. Customized learning is the next frontier for higher ed. Why should students suffer through content they already know well, when they can better focus on the content they have not yet learned? With few exceptions, it has been difficult for higher ed to adopt competency-based education, while the world in which students live has become exponentially more personalized.
The road not traveled
These are not small signs of change, but large bellwethers that higher education is headed for broad disruption. Couple these technological innovations with diminishing college-aged enrollment, increasing cost of attendance, and high student debt load, and it becomes apparent that the current campus-based, semester-delivery model will likely not sustain itself into the next century, with the exception of a few elite, well-endowed institutions and community colleges in sufficiently populated areas.
The disruptive foreshadowing is clear, but what can higher ed do now to future-proof itself? Like prepping for an apocalyptic event, it would be difficult to know where to start, and there are barriers at every turn. Institutional accreditors and regulators make paradigmatic innovation difficult to realize. More paradoxically, vulnerable institutions most in need of future-proofing lack the risk tolerance, fiscal, and human resources to change, while endowed institutions are not motivated to innovate, but have all the risk tolerance and resources they would need.
Without being overly prescriptive, I submit that most institutions can start by simply acknowledging that disruptive change is on the horizon. Formal and informal conversations can be had, and strategic actions can be planned that will better prepare the institution to withstand disruptive competition. The range of responses can vary based upon institutional mission, resources, and willingness to innovate. While most institutions perform periodic SWOT analyses as part of strategic planning, unforeseen threats as described above are usually overlooked, or at best underestimated.
I suggest institutions spend time imagining a new world in which one of the FANG companies is offering accredited certificates and degrees to an already captive audience. This exercise might motivate more institutional creativity, proactivity, and preparedness to persist in the face of disruption.
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