The Dim Future of Higher Education

Headed to a university near you – Disruption. But not in the way you might expect. Most believe it will be the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that forever changes the landscape of higher education – but something much more close to all of us will be the demise. For years the college degree has been the path of success. The colleges said it was the path, and the culture followed suits pouring their hard earned (or borrowed) money into a college education for us and our children. What a fantastic ride it has been. And what a powerful marketing machine.

Just think about it. From the time your kids are born, most Americans are planning – and saving – for the right to pay us for our services. No other industry I know of has such a strong appeal and market that people assume they have to buy it – no matter what the cost. Like me, you likely have watched friends almost blindly send their kids away to the university. Many of those families struggle financially under the burden. And yet, many are not sure what the result will be – other than a diploma. However, they worry that without college, their kids will never survive in the world.

The Call of the MOOCs

MOOCs have certainly had an impact on the university – but not a negative one. MOOCs have moved from offerings by other people to offerings by the universities themselves through sites like Coursera and EdX.
But, when I speak to university faculty and administrators about online courses being a threat – they balk. Today many in the university still look down their noses at online offerings – even the ones they offer. They are just not a fit for the high-brow academics. Neither was I. In fact, I assumed we could never deliver the same quality online that we do in person. I have now learned those are challenges that can be overcome and that online might be even more powerful than in person for increasing interaction and accountability. But I digress. MOOCs are here to stay and play a role.

The Real Threat to the University Model

MOOCs are not the real threat. Neither are trade schools, community colleges, or the many other offerings out there competing for the attention of our students. The real danger will unfold in two phases.
Phase 1 – The need for talent.
“We cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
Companies are struggling to find the bodies they need to fill open positions – especially in technology fields. Many companies have over 100 open engineering positions and have no clear path to fill them all. They are competing against other companies for those bright minds – and at times the competition for talent gets fierce. More than ever before, recruits are looking for lifestyle over a job. The employer has to offer not only the right jobs with benefits but also have to be in the right cities and offer a lifestyle that allows as much fun as it does work.
So what will these employers do when they get desperate? They will get creative. When Google wanted to attract an eggheaded talent pool, they placed a billboard with a mathematical puzzle that led the inquisitive (who could solve the puzzle) to a website where they invited them for an interview. A creative filter and bait to get talent.
But even that leaves them short. Companies like Google, Facebook, Cisco, and thousands (or millions) of other tech companies desperate for people are going to have to find a new plan. Universities are just not graduating enough people to fill the void. The demand exceeds the supply.
So what can they do to fix their talent problem? They will use their products to find their people. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others who have daily access to their future talent through online interactions can play their games with their platforms to find, train, and evaluate their future talent. How?
Through their AI (Artificial Intelligence) engines. Think about this scenario. A company like Facebook knows an awful lot about their users. They can collect data to determine interests, skills, critical thinking, and even grammar.
They (or companies like them) could start building AI tools that would allow them to identify candidates and invite them into gaming platforms with the intent of educating them through gaming – what we call edutainment. Think about the power. With this power they could:
  • Determine who to invite into their training programs based on user behaviors.
  • Create learning platforms using gaming and making it socially competitive.
  • Adjust learning and teaching tools to the various learning styles and speeds automatically.
The result is we would not have people who suffered through school just getting by through memorizing the test and being good test takers- these people would have learned to conquer the challenges. Think about the kids you know who might struggle in school, but can speak intelligently about the gaming strategy on Minecraft.
The companies can groom their “students” until they are ready to be offered jobs within the company. The social media companies will now be able to train their workforce in skills such as programming, data analytics, hacking, networking, etc. They would have solved their problem of getting people.
Phase 2 – The danger starts
But the trouble for us in the university has only begun. Once these companies have developed tools to train their tech talent, they will have developed powerful educational tools that will likely be superior to what we often do in the classroom. Now with these tools in hand, do you think they will ignore the trillion-dollar higher education market? Now we have disruption. These same tools will be tuned for other skills such as accounting, finance, education, etc. We can argue that this might not work with hands-on skills such as medicine – but that might only be because we are short-sighted.
The result is we could end up with better education in a shorter time with validated results. Sure there are a lot of issues here – but many can quickly be addressed. After all, it is just software. 

A Glance into The Future – How I See it Playing Out

GroupX (substitute your favorite social media company) is a major social media platform with hundreds of millions of users with high engagement. They have developed significant AI engines to help users find what they want.
Like other social media platforms, GroupX users share via text, videos, audio, group meets, and virtual rooms. Augmented reality allows people on all parts of the earth to have dinner together, go on vacations together, and interact as if they were in the same room without leaving home. Companies connect to GroupX as their front-end store, allowing customers to place orders without leaving the platform.
GroupX makes revenue partly through sales of products (being the conduit) and advertising. But the big win has been education.
The Offerings 
GroupX allows parents and users to sign up for their educational tracks. Knowing what gets the students attention, GroupX uses their AI to determine best educational paths – and the best way to deliver education. From knowing what makes good professionals in all fields, it tailors content to the user to help them learn. It can also determine what kind of learning content is best. It might feed one student American History provided by Hal the History Rapper – who delivers history stories in a rap style with all the video to entertain and educate. Other students will get the content delivered in audio or even text messages. Using virtual reality, each student can even visit various times in history.
Like Apple did the App Store, content for education will be provided by many vendors, some free and some costing $1 to $50 per course. GroupX allows developers to use their programming interfaces to develop validation of learning tools to prove a student knows what they learned. Many companies do their testing in a competitive form using social interaction and gaming. Major gaming vendors such as Minecraft and WOW have built testing APIs to allow companies to use their games to test skills.
The Partnerships
Employers – who can participate in the gaming and courses for a fee, can buy the validation credentials from GroupX. GroupX allows each company many search criteria beyond just knowledge – but also competitiveness, speed or learning, social skills, grammar, and professionalism.

The End is Near

Over time educational tools will become more sophisticated. Universities can participate as well as other vendors, but given their size and slowness to adapt, many will be left behind still arguing how they are superior. The competition for students who still want to go to university will get fierce, and the market will begin to dry up. Certainly, some universities will survive (and thrive), but likely many will disappear like the companies we have long forgotten as they failed to adapt. Higher education at a university will go back to what it once was, a luxury for those who have the money and the time. No longer will they demand the attention of a majority of the population, and no longer will we go into debt to pay them. And, maybe that is not such a bad thing.

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