Popular video forecasts the end of traditional higher education

Sams says certificates and badges will soon replace degrees.

In Bill Sams’ future, only the children of the ultra-wealthy will attend on-campus college courses, the student loan industry will collapse, and Google will build an omniscient online educational system while Apple and Amazon team up to create a learning resource leviathan.

And all of that comes to pass by 2020.

Sams, an executive in residence at Ohio University, made the web video, “EPIC 2020,” grabbing educators’ and technologists’ attention with brave predictions of how the college campus will cease to be a learning hub, and online schools will become the new standard in a world where Stanford, MIT, and Harvard don’t much matter.

“EPIC 2020,” after detailing the great institutional and societal strife of traditional education’s Armageddon, culminates with details of the learning system of the future: Google’s Evolving Personal Information Construct (EPIC), which “will know everything that you know and understand everything that you need to know to optimize your life,” Sams said.

Degrees will be replaced by credentials and badges, according to “EPIC 2020,” following the model adopted by the Mozilla Open Badges program, the Khan Academy, and Udacity, a site started by a Stanford professor who taught a free, open online course in 2011 that drew more than 160,000 registrations worldwide.

Sams even names the date of Google’s EPIC unveiling: June 22, 2020. Mark your calendars.

“It’s not my sole objective to be right or wrong here, but to get people talking about things that need to be discussed,” Sams said in an interview with eCampus News. “All of us are trapped in the paradigm of how things have been, the system we’ve existed in all of our lives. … A lot of [educators] have a worldview that makes it impossible for them to even see solutions to problems that exist today.”

Sams’ video has provoked a range of reactions from educators and IT officials, from amused to intrigued. Some call the “EPIC 2020” prophesies outlandish, others say the predictions are realistic, if not hard to imagine.

“I think that the video is certainly forward-thinking,” said Raymond Schroeder, director of the University of Illinois’s Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service. “Those who don’t see the possibilities, I think, are missing the current trends and the speed with which changes are taking place right now in higher education.”

Schroeder, an outspoken advocate for massive open online courses (MOOCs), said the shift toward an open, mostly free college model has already begun.

MIT partnered with Harvard in its edX program, which offers free classes using the popular flipped learning approach. Coursera, launched by former Stanford professors, has more than two dozen college-level courses available to anyone with an internet connection. Udacity has drawn hundreds of thousands of learners to its 11 courses.

The “EPIC 2020” video includes a not-too-distant partnership between Apple and Amazon to create a new entity known as Applezon. This platform will become the world’s largest content distribution site. Around the same time, Apple’s iTunes U expands and educators post free lectures that are used by the largest providers of free learning.

Before these free online offerings can usurp traditional degree-earning programs, student loans must cease to exist.

Sams posits that the entire student loan industry will implode in 2013 after Congress passes legislation that eliminates Pell Grants and allows students to wipe away their massive debt loads by declaring bankruptcy. Student debt is currently the only form of debt that cannot be eliminated by bankruptcy.

Students nationwide will revolt and demand that colleges and universities only charge for assessment of their knowledge, not the information that Udacity and Coursera offer free of charge.

By 2014, colleges will have made the shift to assessment-based learning, a model popularized by Western Governors University (WGU) and Excelsior College and recently adopted by the University of Wisconsin, the first public campus to experiment with competency-based learning.

To fill the vacuum left by the overnight collapse of the student loan industry, free online learning platforms will be sustained through a new funding system in which companies pay the online schools to funnel the best students into their industries.

The old-school campus, meanwhile, will become a relic.

“Residential college campuses are now maturational holding grounds for the children of the wealthy,” Sams said in the video. “Their focus is on comfortable living accommodations, gourmet food, social activities, and sports teams.”

Martin Van Der Werf, a blogger for the ed-tech site The College of 2020, said the “EPIC 2020” video, while raising valid points about the direction of higher education, goes too far in predicting the total replacement of traditional classrooms and campuses.

“I see some of those things happening. They won’t replace higher ed altogether, but serve some pockets of higher ed,” he said. “The video was almost a work of science fiction, and the value in sci-fi is that it helps you imagine worlds that don’t exist yet. Sci-fi stories draw plausible scenarios that make you think of what is possible, and that’s why this video might be valuable.”

It doesn’t take a futurist to predict a far-reaching role for Google in higher education, Schroeder said. Google’s first free online class, called Power Searching With Google, launched July 10. Students will be able to discuss class material in Google+ groups, and like the other free educational models, Google will give a certificate of completion to everyone who finishes the course.

“I think that there is every possibility – even a probability – that Google will get into the education field in a big way,” Schroeder said.

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