Online Universities: The Future of Elite Education

Online education has officially arrived. What five years ago was the ubiquitous domain of University of Phoenix, is now dominated by sexy start-ups like the recently announced edX by Harvard and MIT. The unprecedented boom of these education technology outfits has thrown the media into a tizzy about the coming of an education revolution. It certainly will happen, but there are some fundamental challenges it must tackle before it can disrupt and transform elite higher education.

American higher education is a deeply entrenched system that is able to embrace innovation but has yet to be upended by it. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, like Udacity and Coursera have the potential to be disruptive because they offer for free the same core assets that universities charge for: educational content and instruction. This de-commodification is critical and historic -- it democratizes knowledge and makes it available to anyone with Internet access. The scalability is limitless. Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun started Udacity after he offered a free online version of his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” that caught the attention of over 160,000 students around the world. Thrun said, "Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again. You can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture to your 20 students, but I've taken the red pill and I've seen Wonderland."

But, what does Wonderland look like? And, are we really there? While Udacity and Coursera have effectively attracted top professors and have a seemingly good growth strategy to ensure quality, will they really offer free Ivy League-quality education to learners as some pundits claim they will?

That is unlikely, and it’s not because MOOCs offer weaker courses or instruction. In fact, one could argue that in terms of strict content, a student could take a 32-course load through a MOOC with partnerships with the top universities  --mixing and matching Princeton and University of Michigan courses, for example -- and learn just as one would at a brick-and-mortar institution. With a focus on peer collaboration, assessment, and online pedagogy, it won't be long until high-quality MOOCs can prove they deliver just as strong learning outcomes and the social experience to go with it. (Just check out how MITx students bring the online experience to offline study groups or what 2tor is doing to take full degree programs online from renowned universities like UNC, USC, and Washington University. Although not technically a MOOC, 2tor has effectively built a full academic experience online and proves that remote learners can achieve and enjoy university just as much as their on-campus peers.

The reality is that many of these top schools embrace the open source movement because 1) it’s a good thing to do; and 2) they don’t want to be left in the dust. The Harvards, UPenns, and MITs of the world are cutting-edge and being able to lead, not follow, the next generation of education is critical to their core values and reputation. But, as the recently released edX makes clear, online students do not receive degrees from these competitive universities.

Keeping the online programs degree-free is in order to keep the cache of brand name universities which is a product of their only increasing exclusivity; Princeton accepted a record low of 7.9% of its 2012 applicants. As education becomes more accessible and MOOCs render the business models of lower-tier universities irrelevant, top universities cannot afford to give away the entirety of their brand for free. Right now, getting “badged” from edX is akin to enrolling in an executive program at Harvard Business School -- a student is affiliated with Harvard, but not technically an alumni. That status is given only to students who make it through the arduous admission process, pay the tuition fees, and graduate (though to a lesser extent). Alumni and universities have a vested interest in perpetuating this exclusivity. It gives entry into a club that according to the dominant narrative of elite education provides powerful networks, better jobs, and elevated status.

The prestige does not come undeservedly for elite universities. They attract top thinkers, invest in strong departments, and offer superior research facilities and physical infrastructure. It is also no coincidence that some of the highest ranked universities also built endowments that are larger than the GDP of some countries. Emory University has the 10th largest at $5 billion; Harvard is number one with $32 billion.

The point is that the current paradigm of elite higher education limits the transformative nature of online education because top universities have a monopoly on the prestige/exclusivity factor and the resources that uphold it. To contend, MOOCs must offer a value proposition that best suits their own capabilities. The following are a couple of possibilities:

Accreditation: This is perhaps the biggest challenge and the biggest area of leverage. Many entry-level white-collar jobs require a bachelor’s degree. If MOOCs can start a movement that makes it easier for entrenched institutions like the government to accept alternatively-accredited students, they can completely disrupt current hiring practices and make the market much more efficient. To do this, MOOCs need to prove to policy makers and educators that they adequately equip students with useful knowledge.

Streamlining Education-to-Employment: Elite universities attract students partly because of the promise of a prosperous career. For better or worse, this belief is changing (just check out parody below by a Princeton alumna that gas gone viral). Once MOOCs can signal to employers that their “graduates” have market-ready skills, they can create co-op programs for students to work in the day and learn in the evenings. Streamlining this process means MOOCs make it easier for students with limited means – both in time and money – and effectively exploits a broken element of our higher education system that became much more obvious in the recent recession.


Personalization: One only has to look at the media business to know that charging for information is so last century; knowledge is no longer a commodity, but, personalization is. MOOCs have an advantage over traditional universities because they can reach millions of users every day and capture how and what they do online. Aggregating this information means MOOCs could effectively employ adaptive learning to diagnose and recommend content to maximize each student’s learning outcomes. This is no easy feat, but by partnering with an organization like Knewton, MOOCs can offer customized learning experiences for every single user. Traditional universities are not set up to do this and many student fall between the gaps in trying to discover what works for them.

Global presence: MOOCs are already attracting thousands of international learners who are eager to benefit from the reputable American higher education system. These numbers will only continue to grow, especially as the cost of attending U.S. universities rises and visa restrictions become tighter. Once accredited, MOOCs will not only offer an attractive alternative, but they can help create a truly globalized system of learning that will finally connect Americans with their overseas peers. This type of continuous collaboration based on shared learning is invaluable and may do more for cross-cultural exchange than anything we have seen thus far. 

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