College Enters the Technology Era

Yesterday we wrote about the frighteningly high cost of a college education.

Technology will play an essential role in helping drive down the costs of college, while at the same time changing the nature of college as we know it. This disruption will eventually give students of all socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to get an education that helps them realize the benefits.

Technology’s potential to revolutionize education has been a common refrain for decades but it’s not yet lived up to the hype. There are three primary reasons why now is different:

First, the pain of paying for college is so acute — for almost all economic classes – there is substantial motivation to find a less expensive version of it. Exacerbating this pain is the great recession – economic hardship not felt for three generations. Necessity can indeed be the mother of invention.

Second, technology has improved so it can now adapt to users and deliver a customized educational experience – helping students learn more, faster. Technology in classrooms historically has meant televisions, overhead projectors, or “word processing” software. One-way communication.

Now, technology can mean adaptive learning engines delivering curricula individualized for each student. College can become less about “place” and more about the “ideas.” That’s where the third reason comes into play.

The best educational content is becoming accessible – for free – to all who are interested. Technology facilitates this access: MIT’s Open Courseware, the Open Educational Resources funded by William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Khan Academy are just three of many examples of free, high-quality content available via the internet. Free resources like this caused Bill Gates to estimate technology can lower the cost of college tuition to $2,000.

And we can see evidence of this in the market, now. As a cost-saving measure, all students in the University of Maryland system are required to take at least 12 credits online. In June of this year, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and the Indiana University System partnered with a leading non-profit online university to create a new, entirely online, campus in its systemStraighterLine, a for-profit firm, offers accredited courses at $33 each, which enables some students to complete their freshman year for $1,000. Total!

A new era is emerging, where students can construct a complete college education from a variety of sources: free courseware, in-person classes, and online classes.

But how will educators, students, and society at large (i.e. potential employers) assess the quality of such an educational experience? A diploma from StraighterLine U. or the like, won’t mean much to an employer as a familiar established university until the efficacy and equivalence is clear and established.

For the technological revolution in college education to really have value, students must be able to earn a credential – a seal of approval – that helps them get a job. Some schools, like the London School of Business, are offering their classes for free but charging for the exams and the diploma. This lowers the cost to the student but allows the college to continue bestowing its seal of approval — and collecting the revenue that comes with that.

More and more students are completing credentialing exams in order to prove they have relevant, marketable, knowledge in a certain field. Passing these exams will be required for entry into a field, but how students gain the knowledge to pass these exams will become irrelevant.

Do you think now is the time for technology to revolutionize college? If so, how do you think students will be credentialed in this new era?

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