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Posted: May 15, 2012

The rise of the super professor

The walls of the ivory tower are coming down

Thomas Frey

For colleges and universities, the great age of experimentation is now upon us.

Last week, Harvard and MIT announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.

The Minerva Project recently announced it will become the first elite American University to be launched in over a century, at the same time, transforming every aspect of the university-student relationship. The Ronin Institute is promising to reinvent academia, but without the academy.

The University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s first tuition-free online university dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education.

In addition, iTunesU, Khan Academy, Learnable, Udemy, Codecademy, Udacity, and a number of other online courseware providers are offering their own approach to next generation learning.

But somewhere, lost in the middle of this battle of the institutions, are the lowly professors upon whom these organizations were built.

That is about to change, and here’s why.

The Great Disconnect

As the student loan bubble nudges ever closer to a financial implosion, and the flow of information on the Internet disrupts every traditional delivery mechanism, a number of questions begin to surface.

Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep thinking?

Colleges and Universities carry with them considerable inertia. They have long-standing traditions, huge alumni networks, solid brands in the minds of consumers, and are more durable than corporations. Many have lasted centuries and are still going strong. Most have integrated themselves into their respective communities with multiple funding tentacles, often benefiting from massive State-funded budgets and intense fundraising operations that extend around the world.

People attend colleges for many reasons including a desire for a better job, a sense of personal accomplishment, to improve their resume, status and prestige, build relationships, and to have fun. However, all of these reasons boil down to one overarching motivation – the quest for a better life.

Over the years colleges have evolved from a simple place of learning into a vast array of potentials. In the end, classrooms and teachers are only a tiny portion the collegiate experience.

Touch points for the college experience include dorm life, textbooks, credits, sports, friends, parties, social circles, fraternities, sororities, libraries, computers, clubs, campus events, research, writing papers, classrooms, teachers, beer, advisors, labs, job interviews, and much more.

Ironically though, most of these touch points have been relegated to “all that crap that happens outside the classroom.” College friends, parties, social events, and all the other “stuff” provides many more of the ingredients for college being a life changing experience than all those fact-cramming lectures could ever hope to achieve.

Yet credits are only given for completed courses.

Typically, young people begin the process at age of 18 and exit between the ages of 22-24. As they leave, they are not only better educated, but also more mature, with a new circle of friends, and a cadre of stories that will frame their thinking for the rest of their lives.

Any person fighting a war understands that the outcome of the battle is highly dependent upon the caliber of people standing next to them. Similarly, the outcome of the college experience is heavily dependent upon the caliber of students involved.

Over the years, the “rules of the game” have been erroneously written to exclude the value of the experience, thereby giving undue advantage to both low-cost and minimal-experience providers. With college costs spiraling out of control, students are rightfully asking, “What’s the cheapest way to get a diploma?”

Celebrity Professors, a Scarce Commodity

Much like Henry Ford’s “control everything” approach to building cars at the River Rouge Plant where raw materials were brought into one end and finished cars rolled out the other end, colleges have maintained tight control over virtually every aspect of the academic food chain happening on their campus.

Professors are carefully recruited, classroom times and schedules are thoroughly planned, courses are tightly prepared, degrees are strategically framed around in-house talent, and academic accomplishments are meticulously positioned to help brand the experience.

For this type of system, the days are numbered. The walled gardens of academia are losing their walls.

Institutions who have professors locked under contract offer few options for extending influence beyond the traditional publishing route. That is changing with the availability of online courseware.

As an example, iTunesU, started in 2007, currently has over 1,000 Universities participating from 26 countries. Their selection of classes, now exceeding the 500,000 mark, have had over 700 million downloads. In addition, they recently announced they were expanding into the K-12 market.

However, even when colleges start playing catch-up, offering Internet-based courses, the professors tend to get left out of the decision-making process. In most cases, courses are little more than a video camera in the back of the room fraught with low production values and irrelevant lengthy diatribes.

Professors are also being left out of marketing decisions, personal branding campaigns, and how the intellectual capital of their life’s work get’s disseminated.

Universities can always add more professors, but an individual professor has a limit to how much they can produce over a lifetime. And that’s the nugget of scarcity that professors will demand greater control over in the future.

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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