A President's Reflections

The coming revolution in higher ed

Posted on March 6, 2012

I’m writing a chapter for a new book on higher education and the overview below is my take on the disruption that is just getting underway in education today.  As these changes take hold, traditional residential campuses will continue to thrive (or at least most will) because many 18-year-olds will continue to want to live on a campus, be in classes with faculty members with whom they forge strong relationships, engage in campus life, and have those four (sometimes more) special years that is the American college experience (though that is a mythic experience for millions).

Large online programs such as the one we offer in COCE will also continue as many adult learners still think about learning, about degrees, and about knowledge in the unit we know as the course.  They will still feel most comfortable with having an instructor and an advisor and terms that are laid out in prescribed schedules.  There is an order and familiarity in that structure that is reassuring and knowable.

The big changes will come for the millions of Americans who need a degree and who are not currently being served by higher education, though everything we know about the future of work screams crisis.  We used to rank #1 in the world for the percentage of adults with a college degree.  We have now slipped to 10th or 11th.  As the new disruptive models take hold they will come to alter the more traditional models, probably more than we can know today.  It is at once an exciting and daunting time.


Describing higher education as a “mature” industry is to grossly understate the centuries long endurance of its core activity: faculty members creating, refining, and delivering education to students. Oh, the enterprise built around that core activity has certainly evolved (everything from technology to student services to Title IV funding) and the University of Bologna could not boast of its football or basketball prowess or match the facilities we now build, even if many of those echo their medieval forebears. Yet, until recently, the act of creating a course, building a syllabus, identifying and assembling necessary content, outlining learning activities, delivering instruction, intervening when students struggle, assessing student learning, and perhaps revising the course on occasion rested with one person: the faculty member. Collections of faculty members essentially mirrored that set of actions at the program level, bringing their courses together in a cohesive whole. It has, with little exception, always been thus.

As Clayton Christensen’s work shows, mature industries lend themselves to disaggregation. That is, rather than one entity providing an integrated service (think faculty member and course creation/delivery as described above), new suppliers more expert in the component parts of the whole can do a better job and often at a lower cost. The delivery of instruction is being disaggregated with a vengeance today. Subject matter experts (one large dimension of a faculty member’s role) working with expert instructional designers are creating high quality courses which will be taught by otherfaculty members acting as facilitators (a model going back to the 1960s and Britain’s Open University). Faculty may largely or wholly be absent from the student’s consumption of course materials and activities, as is true with Western Governor’s University or StraighterLine, and learning interventions might come from peers through platforms like OpenStudy or Fidelis. Online education has disaggregated learning from place, geographic area, and campus, so that certain kinds of learners can learn in more well suited locations or simply have access to education that would not otherwise be available to them.

Enormous opportunities to make learning more efficient, more affordable, and more effective come with the new disaggregation of higher education. Decoupled course development helps ensure consistency across multiple sections of courses. Relying on self-paced learning and peer-to-peer support removes enormous labor costs from delivery, while online delivery removes enormous capital costs from the equation. Technology platforms allow far better optics into the learning experience and allow for more timely and effective interventions.

Yet with disaggregation comes displacement of traditional roles, most notably for faculty, and also new challenges. Many of the most innovative models demand self-discipline, motivation, and a measure of learner confidence. Yet they will first serve the under served, often adult students who are fragile learners overcoming past academic struggles and without the robust support systems provided in more conventional delivery models. A move to competency-based learning with the kind of reliable assessments necessary to reassure employers (they will hold these models suspect without it) will likely result in lower graduation rates—at least for a while, though the students who do graduate will be have a level of mastery that eludes far too many graduates of conventional institutions (see Academically Adrift). Title IV funding, vital to this population, is not structured to support success and progress, focusing instead on inputs and antiquated units of learning.

Yet all the pieces exist to create very low cost – almost free – high quality higher education models that can serve the millions of Americans who do not have a degree and cannot afford a degree at the tuitions levels we currently charge. Some of those components are time tested and proven, such as the competency-based three-year program at SNHU. Others, such as peer-to-peer learning support platforms like OpenStudy, are still evolving, though they have tens of thousands of users. Bill Clinton once said we overestimate the change we will see in the next two years and dramatically underestimate the amount of change we will see in ten. Higher education is at a tipping point now, the confluence of economic pressures, the changing nature of work, the national and global need for educated citizens, and advances in technology. While higher education may not look so very different two years from now, the stage is now set for revolutionary, not evolutionary, changes in the next decade.

3 thoughts on “The coming revolution in higher ed

  1. Karine Joly says:

    You’re right, President LeBlanc, change is coming to higher education.

    And, while institutions try to find new innovative ways to deliver courses to more and more students, it seems that education has become the new Eldorado for many organizations, companies and start-ups.

    When I see more and more faculty members offering their courses directly to thousands of students through new platforms (Udemy, BigThink, etc.), I keep wondering what will happen to institutions.

    Tradition and the “campus experience” are important parts, but with increasing costs and a weak job market will they still be as important in the future?

    Anyway, I can’t wait to read the book.

  2. Karine raises some interesting points, and her comment nicely dovetails with mine. President LeBlanc mentions the “displacement of traditional roles” for faculty that a highly disaggregated model leads toward, I keep wondering what will happen to the whole notion of “faculty” and the highly qualified individuals who try to make a living teaching. If we’re modifying the traditional role of “faculty,” what is the new role that people-who-are-faculty will fill?

    There’s already a trend toward using part-time faculty in higher education, so how does disaggregation fit in with that? Dividing “teaching” into a series of finite tasks seems to work quite well with the part-time model, as you can hire contingent staffmembers to do each piece. This is cost-effective for institutions, but what about the individuals who invested full-time energy and effort into obtaining advanced degrees that qualify them for largely part-time employment?

  3. Andy Brown says:

    When I think about the way I’ve learned digital photography, it’s been a disaggregated education. I’ve learned from traditional and ebooks, webinars, conversations with experts like Michael Fatali and others, peer review, articles. I’ve sought out the expertise I needed and put together my own “curriculum” based on my learning needs. I’m fairly confident that I could hold my own against someone with a traditional B.A. in photography.
    The timing is perfect for giving credit to this kind of education and putting these opportunities on the same playing field. Higher education by the self-motivated and “self-taught” is as valuable as the degree received in a more traditional time frame. Looking forward to the full chapter and the entire book.

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