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Posted: April 16, 2013

The futurist: The rise of the MOOCs

Groundswell of change for colleges

Thomas Frey

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

A MOOC -- massive open online course -- focuses on large-scale participation via the web. 

Apple recently announced that iTunes U, their online compendium of free downloadable college course, started in 2007, just surpassed the one billion downloads mark. Stanford University alone has had more than 60 million course downloads through iTunes U.

A full 60 percent of iTunes U downloads originate from outside the United States, coming from 154 different countries.

Coursera, a free online delivery platform for 62 colleges worldwide started in April 2012, has already had 2.8 million students register for its classes.

Competing directly with Coursera is EdX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard University and MIT in March 2012. They’ve recently added 10 more schools to their partner roster and already have more than 700,000 students. 

Adding to the mix are a host of disruptive startups like Khan Academy -- with more than 242 million course downloads -- Udacity and Canvas Networks.

The rapid shift to free any-time any-place online learning is forcing traditional colleges to rethink virtually every aspect of their operation.

Significant Trends

Along with all the changes mentioned above, we are seeing a number of substantial trends emerging:

1.) Employer acceptance of non-credit courses – In 2011, Excelsior College and the Zogby organization conducted nationwide surveys of employers and hiring officials to determine their perceptions of online certificates and degrees. Nearly two-thirds believed courses taken online to be as credible as those through traditional campus-based programs. 

2.) The coming price wars – Traditional colleges charge huge amounts of money, while the large online players offer their classes for free. Since the economics of free is not a long-term viable strategy, expect to see pricing battles emerge between key players.

3.) Rise of the Super Professor – As MOOCs become more sophisticated and closely monitor their analytics; every instructor will be assigned a star-power rating tied directly to their ability to draw a crowd. Much like in Hollywood, top professors will begin to retain agents in order to market their talent effectively.

4.) The demise of for-profit colleges – Colleges have a way of instilling loyalty among their students, but less so for colleges without physical campuses and even less so those whose primary role is to make money for shareholders. The fallout has already begun.

5.) Shrinking course lengths – With time and place requirements going away and time constraints of students becoming an overriding concern, look for course lengths to shrink to their absolute minimum.

6.) Expanding number of long tails courses – In much the same way “hit” television shows attract millions of viewers while niche TV shows are proliferating, far more niche courses will be developed as traditional college gatekeepers get circumvented. 

To be sure, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to education in the future.

Final Thoughts

More than 35 million Americans now owe more than $1 trillion in student loans, and much of what’s owed is for knowledge and skills no longer pertinent in today’s world.

If this debt were collateralized by factory equipment, the unusable portion of the debt would be quickly charged off as uncollectable and the loan officer in charge of lending the money would be severely chastised.

Student loans, however, fall into a different category. They are easy to get and Congress has chosen to classify these loans as “non-dischargeable” in a bankruptcy.

As MOOC courses apply downward pressure on the cost of tuition, and constant refresher courses become part of everyday life, a number of friction points will emerge surrounding this increasingly uncollectable debt mass. Students will claim they were conned, and societal pressure will mount against the “too easy to get” loan system.

Tightening the loan system alone will cause many colleges to go out of business.

When we think about what college education will look like in 20 years, the mounting number of variables make it impossible to predict. But in general, education will become more readily available at a lower price and come in more flavors and varieties than we ever dreamed possible.

For those who love to learn, there are good reasons to be optimistic. But for those mired in debt and still struggling to compete, the better-life dream is still a few system changes away from reality.

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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