Higher education – formal degree programs taught by brilliant, tenured professors in idyllic campus settings – is undergoing full-fledged disruption. But MOOCs and other more accessible, affordable, Internet-driven “alternatives” are not the big bullies most assume they are, asserts Clay Shirky, one of the country’s most prominent Internet technology thinkers. Rather, it’s the sector’s unyielding business model that presents its toughest test.
“Interest in using the Internet to slash the price of higher education is driven in part by hope for new methods of teaching, but also by frustration with the existing system,” says Shirky, an NYU professor. “The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests. It’s the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.”
When an industry is challenged by changes, it is almost always worried about replacement – another that looks and acts like them. The real risk is actually displacement. Shirky, who has studied industrial transitions for the last 20 years, points to newspapers, which kept close tabs on savvy online competitors like the Huffington Post, but turned a blind eye to Craigslist because it didn’t “look like a newspaper.”
Of course, there are also the cases of the recording industry versus Pandora and Spotify, and brick-and-mortar travel agencies versus sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor. The list goes on – each institution falling prey not to technology, but to business structures that were very difficult to reimagine. Now, as the future of higher education lies in wait, Shirky hopes its dramatic renegotiation has a better outcome.
“If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help … students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority,” he wrote in his latest blog post, “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age.”
Shirky is certain: the key to warding off the sector’s paralysis is experimentation, and the Internet will play a revolutionary role. “The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale, low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle.”
Read more about Shirky’s provocative perspectives about the future of higher education here.You might also be interested in his University Futures piece, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” as well as his best-selling books, “Cognitive Surplus” (Penguin 2010) and “Here Comes Everybody” (Penguin 2009).