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Posted: July 10, 2013

The futurist: More on who controls the education industry

The transition ahead will be messy

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

Last year, James Glattfelder presented a very probing look into areas of power and control with his critically important TED talk, “Who controls the world?”

After conducting an impressive amount of research, he determined there were over 43,000 significant transnational corporations who essentially control the world. But probing deeper, he found that 737 of the top shareholders (primarily those in the banking and finance world) controlled 80% of the value in these corporations.

Drilling down even further, a tiny subset, consisting of only 146 individuals, controlled 40 percent of the wealth of these companies.

If we were to apply Glattfelder’s research to the world of education, we would undoubtedly find similar patterns of wealth, control, and power. Even though most of the highly regarded educational istitutions are non-profit and not “ownable,” the puppet strings of control are invariably being pulled by a similar set of individuals.

However, when it comes to policy decisions that help guide the overall direction of the higher education industry, much of that power and influence has traditionally come from key individuals at elite institutions like Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. 

Over the past couple years, we have witnessed a significant power shift. Online education powerhouses like iTunesU, edX, Coursera, and Udacity have risen above the noise and are jockeying for industry clout. Coursera is currently showing signs of becoming the 8,000-pound gorilla in this space.

Once two or three definitive industry leaders emerge, they will also have the ability to change the rules of the game.

As an example, five years from now, Coursera could very possibly have 50 million registred students from around the world. With that type of following, they could implement an entirely new system for replacing college credits and devise a far more effective way of credentialling academic achievement, replacing traditional degrees with 10 to 20 achievement levels that recognize learning over an entire lifetime. 

Turning Education into a Self-Organizing Complex System

First, to function as a true self-organizing complex system, education needs to be parsed into far smaller learning elements. Semester-long courses are too long to allow quick change from a teaching standpoint and overly burdensome from a student (consumer) perspective.

Is it possible to convert today’s college education from semester courses into a series of one-hour modules, maybe even shorter? 

Replacing a one-hour module is far easier than replacing a 12-week long course. So from the standpoint of creating a highly adaptive, highly responsive learning system, course length is a critical element. 

Second, when it comes to giving students accurate information to make informed decisions about their education, we will need to provide real-time statistics on employers, jobs, salaries and student loan details.

Making these two changes alone will move higher ed significantly down the path to becoming a self-organizing complex system.

Final Thoughts

Business professionals in the future will require twice as much training as their counterparts today, just to stay competitive.

As we move further towards a globally competitive workforce, competition will stiffen, and our need to shift gears will happen at a moment’s notice. We will no longer have the time and place luxuries of waiting for the right opportunity for education to happen.

If your entire universe of course options is the 1,500 to 2,000 courses offered by a local universities, you will find yourself at a severe disadvantage when competing against someone who takes courses on Coursera, EdX, iTunesU, Udacity or Learnable.com.

The transition ahead for colleges and universities will be very messy as competing forces on both sides of the change movement begin to form. As with virtually every other industry of the past, colleges will be forced to become more efficient, doing more with less.

Over time, this transition will offer tremendous benefits to society. In much the same way that ancient libraries had their books chained to the podiums, colleges have tried to chain learning to their campuses. Unleashing these chains of learning will serve as a cathartic release for the entire world.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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