The Next Big Thing in Learning!

What is the story behind the statement that there is no “next big thing”?

 EdTech Magazine recently quoted Cameron Evans saying,

“The reality is that there is no “next big thing”…The next big shift will be all of these things taken together.”

First, you will have to read the original EdTech article to get a better context on my statement.  We were attending the ITIF Conference, “Transforming Higher Education with IT,” in Washington, DC. We were discussing the topic of innovation in Higher Education that would fundamentally reduced the cost of acquiring a college degree.

According the NY Times, student debt for higher education has passed the $1 trillion mark. This debt is spread across for-profit, private, and public institutions of higher learning. While the cost of a degree is still a worthwhile pursuit, financial access to universities is becoming a greater challenge in our current lean economy.

I was a member of a panel of thought leaders in academe and industry.  I would say that we were all contrarians. Not a single one of us believed that the status quo was sustainable or tenable for the American student or the business of learning.

The focus of the ITIF conversation was slanted heavily towards solutions and experiments that were being attempted across higher education.  One solution that continued to take the center stage is online learning. Online learning is not new. It has had many names over the years–however, it is once again the flavor du jour.  Hidden in online learning’s resurgence are the keys and challenges to unlocking the next big shift in higher education.

The Dawn of the Education Import-Export Business
My fellow panelist, Stephen R. Ruth, Ph.D, Professor of Public Policy and Technology, The School of Public Policy at George Mason University, presented an insightful case on Stanford University’s online education program. In the fall 2011 term, Stanford offered a number of courses online at no costs to non-Stanford students.  These are high quality courses that provide grades, tests, access to professors and graduate assistants. It is the same course that you would take at Stanford–only you will not receive a Carnegie Unit for your participation. Stanford had over 300,000 registrants for their courses.

In a surprising move, the University of Freiburg in Germany decided to offer academic credit to their enrolled students that took Stanford courses.  That statement bears repeating, so I would encourage you to read it more than once for its significance.  Stanford suddenly became a knowledge exporter and the University of Freiburg became an importer of academic product.  There are so many implications to this single action. It will have a repercussive impact throughout the entire K20 spectrum for years to come.  Schools and universities are going to need a holistic approach to using technology to remain competitive; to reduce the overall costs of a college degree; and to remain relevant while producing a positive benefit for students.

Question #1: The first question that must be asked is how much does it costs the University of Freiburg to provide credit for a course it never taught?

It is an important question. The historical costs in education have been wrapped up in human capital.  On average, more than 80 percent of education budgets are people. In modern schools and universities, the most effective way to reduce recurring costs is to reduce your human talent to a level where the mission can be still be accomplished.  That is a hard pill for anyone to swallow. Schools and universities are still dealing with multi-year reductions in education budgets at the state and local levels.  We are talking about jobs and careers.  While that is not something I take lightly, Freiburg’s innovative approach introduces a new element that prompts further investigation on how to truly reduce the cost of getting a college degree.

Question #2: If I can import high production value and academic rigor from a third-party source; what should I do with my existing investments?

Education leaders should really ponder this for a moment. Recently, Harvard and MIT announced their EdX initiative that will provide a Harvard  or MIT course online and for free. This is not just a sea change in higher education, it is also a significant change for secondary education as well.  I attended a gift and talented high school as a teenager. I am confident that my high school’s, textbook-derived, history class would not hold a candle to a history course from Harvard.  Can we take the cost out of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and encourage our gifted students to study online at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and others for free? (For some reason, I always imagine Adam Sandler, saying “for Freee!” when I hear the costs of online education initiatives.) This new freemium model of learning adds kindling to the altar of many sacred cows of education tradition.

Question #3: How did Stanford deal with 300,000 registrants for their courses?

This is a perfect business case for cloud computing in its killer learning app form.  While 300,000 students registered for Stanford’s online courses, I am not persuaded that 300,000 students actually completed the courses they began. Being free does not guarantee academic stickiness or a deeper commitment from consumers.  So should universities delivering free online courses build out their own datacenter technologies to do so? I would argue, “no.”

The cloud as a platform was made for this type of application–high scalability, available on-demand and relinquished when no longer needed.  It also introduces a question, ‘do I need to buy a Learning Management System (LMS), when I am no longer managing learning?’  This is a transition.  It is doubtful that any school or university would tear down systems overnight and start accepting free and unvetted courses that may not map to their sequence needed for learning or granting a degree.  However, learning management systems will need to provide a far greater degree of openness to allow for courses taken outside of the institution to be ingested into a contiguous academic record.

There is one model for this at Microsoft that highlights the cloud and the openness of data management–Microsoft HealthVault.  I have written about HealthVault previously here. The notion that individuals can determine custodial care of their medical records across agencies, devices, and services is the heart of the HealthVault platform. In July 2011, Microsoft announced a $15 million effort to explore new learning models analogous to Microsoft HealthVault for education. That work is still ongoing.  It is this type of framework for both policy and technology that is needed to enable the consumerization of learning and the agility for schools and universities to be active agents in the process of learning.

Question #4: What does this mean for my human capital investments in faculty and professorships?

Being free does not guarantee academic stickiness or a deeper commitment...Only individual institutions can determine the answer to this question. Here is some food for thought.  In the knowledge economy of the 21st Century, it is better to be a producer of new knowledge than just a consumer.  This assertion implies that research universities that are producing new knowledge may have an advantage. Schools and universities will need to climb higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It also implies that schools that do not differentiate their “product” for students, may be perceived as middlemen or overhead costs.  In a hyper-brand conscious society, your product has to be more than mere overhead markup costs on the genuine article.

Question #5: What is the real cost of a college degree when the courses are free?

This will be the defining question at family dinner and executive cabinet tables in the coming years. College rankings will have to be reset to incorporate a new reality–a learning consumer’s reality.  Whether a learner’s pursuit of higher learning was solely for acquiring knowledge or a preparing for a career is at least a secondary question to “how much does it really costs?”

I can foresee scenarios where colleges actually make more money in a freemium model of learning by unshackling themselves from classical education courses and repositioning themselves with industry leading courses.  At a minimum, freemium learning should enable market competitive forces to drive the academic community to be more engaging and effective in achieving their core mission outcomes.

Disruption, Dilemma, and Solutions

I can sense as I write this that someone might argue that this could never happen.  Higher Education (or education in general) will not become a mass importer of academic content from third-party sources. (Then why all the debate about ETEXTBOOKS?) Some would argue that there is significantly more going on in our institutions than just taking a course–before we unravel our education system so thoroughly. I would not disagree with you.

However, as Clayton Christensen so astutely states, with proven case evidence, this is exactly how innovative disruption happens. Disruptive innovation is often scant and away in the corner of the world–getting better with each iteration until it overtakes the real or perceived market incumbents. By the time anyone pays attention to it, the incumbents have become irrelevant and a new market leader has the previous incumbent’s “innovator’s dilemma.”

I remember my first online course–more than ten years ago. The course was a practical, no frills experience. It has taken awhile for online education to reach today’s threshold.  At the same time, I have to also consider the growth in fixed and mobile broadband over the same period of time.  In the beginning, the online learning opportunity was limited by the lack of pervasive Internet access. That is no longer the case.  Broadband Internet access is growing. Couple that access with the fact that more states are setting policy for high school students to take at least one online course before graduation, the floodgates are beginning to open.

Technology underpins this movement and it is accelerating its advancement.  Leaders at all levels will be prompted to have a very different conversation with their information and technology leaders about the underwater earthquake that is about to produce a tsunami in learning.  We will all be impacted by how well we can navigate the tides as they rise.

In this article, I wanted to simply highlight the leadership, market making-decisions, and innovation that is happening in higher education. These will clearly impact both costs and quality.  I am also proposing that K12 education will not be immune to these shifts in higher learning.  Later, I will go deeper on the technologies that must be considered to embrace, to differentiate, and to remain relevant in the “next big shift in learning.”

In the interim, I invite your challenge and comment to the case presented.  Are we at the precipice of a tectonic shift in learning or is Cameron just traveling too much?


The Import-Export Paradigm for High-Quality College Courses-An Answer to Tuition’s Through-the-Roof Cost Spiral?, Stephen R. Ruth, George Mason University

The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth,” Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor, Havard Business School Press, 2003


3 Responses to "The Next Big Thing in Learning!"
  1. There is a new movement within the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and a number of major metro clubs are leading the way in addressing poor academic performance and the drop out rate in urban public schools. Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dalllas is one of those clubs that is leading the way in providing opportunities for students to access learning through technology. Since 2008, are data shows that eLearning does work and allows our program staff to quickly identify learning differences of our club members. The tools we are using include web based programs for reading, math and science that align with the public school curriculum. Our target audience is 1st to 5th graders and to date our data shows grade progression rate of 96%. At the high school level, we boast a 99% graduation rate among our teen population.

    We are currently seeking additional funds to expand eLearning into more locations for our afterschool education programs. This is a scalable model that is very cost effective and we can send our trained staff to more locations to serve more kids.

    While we address the social and behavorial skills of our 5000 members, we believe that education is the priority and eLearning will play a significant role in developing the total child.

  2. I believe that online education will involve usage of both— mobile and ipod/laptop technologies along with related educational applications or LMS. Mobile technologies alone will not be a complete solution to the future online instructional technology and pedagogical needs. If this is true, then why so much hype about mobile educational apps? And how face book/social communication media will fit-in as far as “delivering” online courses interactively? How the second life type synchronous video-conferencing instructional methods will take shape in educational level-field? Will the online education scenario bring education cost to students down or some what manageable?

    Dr. Atma Sahu
    Coppin State University

    • First, thank you reading Higher Innovation and your comments.

      I have a broad view of online learning. Today, we contextualize online learning as the activity that fundamentally takes place inside of the LMS and that is scope of the institution’s managed engagement with students. That is too narrow in my view. In truth, students still have to find other online and offline tools outside of the LMS in order to accomplish assignments. This produces a discontinuous engagement with the actual learning of the student.

      Beyond this discontinuous engagement of learning, we have to consider how both social network graphs and search can be smartly integrated into our learning engagement. Commercially, popular social networks today are not necessarily the best fit for learning. Firstly, those networks are purposed for marketing and advertising, not learner engagement. Secondly, the “friends” on contemporary social networks are not necessarily “classmates”. So the relationships are not the same and should not be co-opted into a learning engagement. Finally, students on social networks still wish to maintain a high degree of agency on their network apart from their institution. The best solution is learning from social network approaches and incorporating that insight into Learner Engagement and Success Systems (LESS). In this context, LESS is More!

      Finally, search is implicit in learner engagement. However, today it is poorly implemented. Search must support academic engagement, discovery, and rigorous authorative sources based on learner syllabi, goals, and preferences.

      One of the most effective ways for online learning to bring the costs of learning down is to ensure that learners persist and progress towards graduation. That is a very different engagement model than just a mere LMS or a free course offering. If students actually graduate…and graduate on time…universities will have more operating income to provide a high fidelity, high value learning experience and that is far more cost effective. We need a systemic and holistic approach to learner engagement that supports our pedagogical techniques.