The Future of Colleges & Universities – Part Three

by | Dec 15, 2009 | Future Scenarios

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker the future of colleges universities part three
NOTE: The following is the third in a four part series title: The Future of Colleges & Universities:  Blueprint for a Revolution

Even though learning technologies will ascend to the realm of the virtual world, there will still be interface devices that connect digital learning with the human mind. In this section I will focus on five disruptive technologies to give you a sense of the ingenuity about to be unleashed. There will be far more, perhaps hundreds of new categories, and thousands of such devices.

1.) The Rapid Courseware Builder: At the heart of the college revolution will be a simplified process that allows people around the world to create courses on topics they know. Envisioned as a smooth, fill-in-the-blanks templated process, the courseware builder will carefully step courseware producers through the design, build, and launch phases of each new course.

Courses will be structured around a unique set of standards that include course length, tagging, evaluations, modality, language, demonstrated competency, record keeping, and much more.

2.) Student Profiler & Recommendation Engine: Each new day gives rise to a student with a slightly different mood than the day before. Over time a student’s goals will change, the subjects they are interested in will change, and their top priorities will change. For this reason, we will begin to see a number of “smartware” offerings designed to get inside the head of the student and anticipate what they’d like to do next.

The ultimate profiler and recommendation engine will forever keep the students engaged, in a constant state of anticipation for the next amazing course to appear before them. Each day will be like Christmas morning where they can’t wait for the wrappings to be torn from the packages.

3.) The Courseware Tablet: What the Kindle is to books, the courseware tablet will be to education. In much the same manner that book readers will soon make the ink-on-paper version of books a rare commodity, a new category of course-taking gadgets will soon hit the marketplace.

I use the word “tablet” because these will be highly flexible, portable devices capable of working with a wide range of inputs and outputs. They will enable users to simultaneously create hand drawn sketches; give voice commands; take tests; and engage in video capturing, editing, and viewing. They will even offer analytical tools for students to study the world around them.  In addition, each will come with a direct feed to experts in the field who can answer virtually any question on any topic.

The device will help define the courseware, and the courseware will help define the device. Several products will enter the marketplace, but the advantage will go to the design group that truly understands the needs and working environments of the evolving next generation student.

4.) Personal Coaching Devices: What would it be worth to have Warren Buffet looking over your shoulder and helping you with your stock picks? Or perhaps you may wish to have Jack Welch sitting next to you during a tough business negotiation.

This is exactly the type of service companies will be offering with what I see as a new category of personal coaching devices. As enlightening as this may sound for challenges in the business world, these tools will also be used to mentor students.

Traditionally, teachers have been trained to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate on a specific topic. But students often have great difficulty extracting the core principals from an abstract classroom environment.

By adding a video feed to a pair of glasses and connecting it to a smartphone like the iPhone, Android or Pre, users will be able to have a personal coach whispering in their ear as they struggle with a variety of difficult situations, learning valuable lessons at the exact time and place most crucial to cement a particular learning experience.

Personal coaches will also be used to pose problems that, once solved, become credit worthy. They will help direct students during their travels abroad to search out specific points of interest, give background history of cultural events, and assist on difficult research projects.

Rather than a sage on stage, this becomes a sage on demand with an endless array of educational opportunities associated with it.

5.) Augmented Reality Simulators: Augmented reality isn’t new. The technology has been used for years in military projects as well as in showcase displays such as museum exhibit and trade-show demos. The yellow first-down line superimposed on televised football games is an example of augmented reality.

Enabled by GPS, mapping data from the likes of Google and the accelerometer technology in modern phones, augmented reality involves overlaying data on your environment. Imagine walking around a city and seeing it come to life with reviews of the restaurants you walk past and Wikipedia entries about the sights you see.

One of the newest apps comes from Yelp, an iPhone guide to local restaurants, bars, and merchants. Load it up and you will notice a button labeled “monocle” in the right-hand corner. Hit it and the screen displays a live feed from the phone’s camera, showing exactly what’s in front of you — with one big difference. Aim the camera at a local storefront and Yelp superimposes a star rating on the image. Use Monocle in a hot dining neighborhood, for instance, and point it at every restaurant for a quick appraisal of the best food in the area.

The potential for educational apps using augmented reality are truly mindboggling. EMT training for disaster scenarios, police training for bomb and hostage situations, and military training for handling various forms of combat can all be conducted in lifelike detail without having to subject first-timers to unfamiliar situations.

Disruptive Business Models

Most businesses know how to manage employees remotely, but colleges have a different set of problems when managing students from a distance.

Online courses will evolve from stage-one webcasting and video to scalable, interactive products with global distribution. In short, courses will become commodities and colleges as well as other distribution companies will compete on price.

While some organizations will strive to become the Wal-Mart of low-priced college courses, most colleges will try to redefine their niche, re-branding themselves around their own unique offering. In most cases, however, the price differential will be so extreme that most will find themselves in a bidding war, unable to compete.

At the same time, the commoditization of courses will lend itself to many other business models. Many new variants will come with initial claims of producing faster, better, cheaper students that are better equipped for the challenges ahead. But the fluid nature of the newly emerging learning environment will leave most without a good long-term comparison of proven effectiveness. Here are a few examples of creative business models I see coming out of the woodwork:

1.) Courseware Aggregator Model: On a certain level, colleges are in the aggregation business. The current business model has been built around aggregating such things as talent, students, courses, credits, and experiences.

Online systems for aggregation have made it easy for other organizations to compete, causing colleges to lose control of small pieces of their operation. As an example, Apple’s iTunes recently launched a service called iTunes U to begin aggregating online courses. If you think this is some casual experiment in the area of courseware aggregation, think again. In October 2008, Apple hired Dr. Joel Podolny, the Dean of Yale University’s School of Management, to run the new Apple University.

I predict that sometime over the next two years we will read a headline that someone will have graduated from college having taken all of their courses on an iPhone. Yes, it will probably be a publicity stunt on Apple’s part, but the accomplishment will pave the way for many other innovations.

Others will follow Apple’s lead. The problem with this model as it exists today is that most existing online courses don’t lend themselves well to the online world’s appetite for smaller, faster bites of education.

2.) Credit Bank Model: Excelsior College in Albany, NY is offering a service called a Credit Bank to aggregate college credits. This service is designed for both enrolled and non-enrolled students, and serves as a way to consolidate any college-level credits into a single master transcript for employment or educational purposes. The Credit Bank will also document IT certifications from Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, SAS, Oracle, CompTia, and Sun Microsystems. It logs credits gained through the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) as well as the DSST Exam Program. In addition, they have a system for evaluating other training and experiences for college credits.

Companies outside of academia will view this as a unique opportunity. Some will even develop their own version of global credit banks that accept credits from organizations around the world.

3.) Open Accreditation Model: As a way to circumvent today’s restrictive accreditation systems, a new breed of virtual accreditation systems will spring to life, each offering a new set of standards backed by some very credible names.

To many, our current systems for accreditation are the modern day equivalent to Roman numerals – slow, stodgy, and built around rules that are steeped in tradition. A system ripe for remodeling.

Some will offer accreditation to the courseware producers, others to the course itself. Using algorithms similar to Google’s page rank system that determines the credibility of webpages, open accreditation systems will take into account such things as the student’s evaluation of the course, the caliber of the student making the evaluation, the number of people attempting vs. the number of people completing the course, credentialed endorsement of a course from organizations like IEEE or the American Chemical Society, and much more.

4.) Homeschooling Your College Education: The number of homeschoolers across the US has been mushrooming, with over 2 million students between the ages of 5 and 17 being trained outside of the traditional private and public education systems. At the same time, homeschooling systems have become far more sophisticated, with some formed around neighborhood associations, set curriculums, and regular classroom hours.

Online courses are already allowing students to structure their days more freely, take courses from remote locations, but in most cases credits still need to be channeled through a single institution. In the coming years we will see far more flexible models emerge that give students the same latitude as homeschoolers see today.

5.) Future Admissions Model: As colleges become more virtual, one of the most hotly debated topics will be how to restrict admissions to preserve the brand.

People tend to place high value on that which is most difficult to achieve. Our most revered people are those who have run triathlons, climbed Mt Everest, or won a Nobel Prize. The scarcity of these achievements gives them their value. In a similar fashion, colleges that set the bar for admissions sufficiently high, make acceptance a rare honor. This has been the traditional route for keeping their perceived value high.

However, the scarcity created in the admissions process has created a delicate balance in a supply and demand equation that can easily be thrown into disarray if too many changes are made to it. As an example, an MIT management course offered through iTunes for $99 will cause the perceived value of all other similar management courses to drop to $99.

Further complicating the admissions process will simply be the question – “Admission to what?” Much of a university’s perceived value comes from the caliber of students and professors that students interact with. But as institutions become more virtual in nature, personal contact with others becomes less tangible, and the perceived value of the branded experience drops.

Most colleges will still have to maintain a high admissions standard, but we will see a tremendous amount of experimentation around re-defining the university experience, re-defining what constitutes a high caliber student, and the interactive elements that constitute the branded experience.

6.) Research = Courseware Model: Initially, courseware producers will focus on translating existing classroom courses into online education. Currently, most colleges are just taking the baby step of webcasting an existing course. 2nd and 3rd generation courseware will involve everything from sophisticated videos, to animations, to dynamic three dimensional charts and graphs, to interactive elements that engage the student on a very personal level. Some courses will be reproduced multiple times around distinctly different learning styles.

Existing courses will become an increasingly competitive battleground as established bases of knowledge are turned into scalable, mass-market products that are no longer dependent upon the involvement of the instructor.

In business terms, traditional courses will enter the competitive “red ocean” battlefield and first tier research universities will begin searching for the moral high ground of “blue ocean” strategies to better distinguish themselves from the pack. This new moral high ground will be formed around the research that they are involved in.

Each new piece of research will lend itself to a series of courses that are unique to their institution. Students will be drawn to universities to become involved in cutting edge research projects, and the research will become the branded product offering that generates higher and higher percentages of the institution’s income streams.

Research will be funded by foundations, corporations, and government grants and the courses produced will be increasingly protected by intellectual property.

7.) Lifetime Membership Model: The commoditization of courses will lead to lower and lower income streams. As a way to compensate, colleges will begin offering lifetime memberships that students will pay voluntarily on a monthly basis, many for the rest of their lives.

The perceived value of a college membership will be determined by interactive events, participative projects, and ongoing networking opportunities within the university structure.

Long after graduation, students remain loyal to their alma mater, and their need for further education never ends. As pricing pressures reduce income streams short term, colleges will have to shift gears quickly.

Alumni groups, professional associations, and social networks will all be tapped to help form a meaningful membership offering. For most institutions, the membership income will grow into their primary form of financial support.

8.) Educational Colony Model: Existing campuses are about to undergo a radical transition. The demand for classroom space will dwindle as online courses replace the need to be present in a classroom. The financial weight of maintaining facilities will cause colleges to look for new options to help offset the burden.

One unique option will be that of an educational colony where corporations and other organizations work hand-in-hand on projects that also serve as learning experiences. Some of this already exists, but usually in off-campus locations and under exceptional circumstances. The Colony will be designed around a far more symbiotic relationship with students earning money while they learn, and companies gaining access to talent in a non-traditional work environment.

Often times colony projects will be formed around grant-funded research where the research results in the formation of a new company. In other situations, Colonies will be asked to solve specific problems of national interest or specific to a corporation.

The Colony concept is virgin territory, and Universities will undergo considerable experimentation before they understand the full range of possibilities.

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