Even if you don't work in higher education, you're probably aware that most US universities are facing unprecedented challenges, and are, rightly, nervous about their future. The most immediate challenge, strained funding, has been well documented by the media since the recent recession. However, over the past year, a great deal of coverage has also been paid to disruptive models for delivering educational content. Many education experts predict that in the future, these new models will remove students from the traditional college track. This longer-term threat represents a huge concern for higher education administrators, as their approach to learning has been legitimately challenged by innovative solutions ready to meet the huge demand for quality educational content.
These new models also represent a tremendous opportunity for new content creation.
To date, the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has been synonymous with the movement towards making quality education freely available to the masses. Former Stanford professor Sebastien Thurn founded the first provider of these courses, Udacity. This company made headlines in Spring 2011 for hosting its first free online course in artificial intelligence, which drew over 100,000 participants. Udacity now hosts 22 courses taught by experts associated with Stanford. Since 2011, two additional MOOC providers have sprung onto the scene. EdX, founded by Harvard and MIT, offers 25 courses; and Coursera, which draws from a larger pool of professors, hosts over 200 courses on a range of topics.
MOOCs represent a disruptive challenge to universities because of their price tag (free), as well as their unique pedagogy. In these courses, students watch video lectures with embedded quizzes that provide immediate feedback on course material. The Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative recently demonstrated that this approach to learning was more efficient for mastering content than attending a standard lecture.
Of course there is also skepticism surrounding these courses. To date, no major university has stated they will accept completion of these courses for transferable credit (students typically receive certificates of completion by the MOOC provider). And some argue that these companies are unsustainable. For example, Udacity and Coursera are both for-profit companies, which have not yet established steady revenues.
Despite these challenges, the tremendous promise of MOOCs has been acknowledged by the University of Wisconsin system as a pathway towards learning academic competencies. Their new Flexible Options program will award Bachelor's degrees to students on the basis of completing measurable competencies instead of college credits, and have recommended that students enroll in MOOCs to prepare for their competency tests. Next year, Northern Arizona University will host a similar program.
This scenario is exactly what experts Mark Taylor of Columbia Universtity, and Jeff Salingo, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education have predicted for the future of higher education. That is, open access courses and other low-cost online educational content options will allow students to master high level competencies outside the walls of the university. As a result, students will demand that universities integrate these resources into their degree-completion track. Many students in search of a cheaper education will leave schools that do not follow this approach for those that do.
This is where content entrepreneurs should follow the lead of MOOC providers. As the trend towards completing recognized competencies outside of the university continues, there will be huge demand for educational content within a range of specialties. Udacity, EdX, and Coursera certainly have a jump on the market; however these MOOC providers also face obstacles that may hinder their ability to meet the future needs of students. First, they have to negotiate with professors over proprietary rights; and second, given the size of their operation (each provider has already invested millions), the major MOOC providers will likely only offer courses that attract thousands of students. Therefore, smaller operations can take advantage of these weaknesses with more flexible approaches to delivering academic content.
Entrepreneurs with expertise in certain disciplines can market their knowledge in the form of video tutorials, lesson plans, or other multimedia presentations to students seeking specific competencies. There is also the opportunity to appeal to non-traditional students in search of a degree, such as older working individuals, military personnel, or students with unique learning styles. These are the types of students that the University of Wisconsin system anticipates will participate in their competency-based Flexible Option program.
For those looking to break into this new market, there are resources for determining what an academic competency entails. As a start, the Lumina Foundation has recently produced a free report titled, "The Degree Qualifications Profile," with an explanation of expected competencies across higher education programs. These recommendations will likely be used as guides in the near future given the involvement of organizations such as the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the National Center for Higher Education Management, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Of all the industries undergoing disruption, it is hard to imagine one with as much potential for new content creation as higher education. There is much opportunity here.
("Teen girl reads ebook" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)