Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education – A U.S. Perspective

Digital technology innovations have already upended numerous industries—newspaper publishing, music distribution, financial services, to name a few. Is higher education next? Yes, according to Ms Ellen Hathaway, Managing Director of Envision Search, a leading US executive search firm operating within the education and technology sectors.  We spoke with her recently about the changes occurring in the sector from a US perspective.  According to Hathaway, after years of half-hearted starts and stops, innovation in online learning and delivery is poised to fundamentally disrupt higher education as we know it.  Domestically and internationally, the movement toward online education will have profound ramifications on all aspects of higher education, including accessibility, cost, reach, customization, and quality.

Hathaway notes that online education has been around for a while, so what’s different now? For starters, in the US outstanding student loan debt has surpassed one trillion dollars. Middle class incomes have remained flat, yet the cost of tuition and textbooks continues to soar. Everyone is asking, ‘Is the traditional brick-and-mortar higher education worth the cost?’ According to last year’s McKinsey report, “Education to Employment,” only 50 percent of American youth agreed that post-secondary education helped them get a job, and one-quarter of graduates were still looking for a job six months after graduation. The high cost of college, dissatisfaction with results, and stagnant state of the economy is already fueling substantial growth in enrollment for much less expensive online classes. Enter MOOCs (massive online open courses), and you have a perfect storm, gathering what Hathaway believes will be unstoppable momentum. Today Coursera alone boasts 5.2 million registrations, 100 current online courses, and 58 partners. Coursera also just announced that it is teaming up with the U.S. State Department to create learning hubs around the world. Clearly, MOOCs are here to stay and the scale of involvement is many times greater than ever before.

The change won’t happen overnight according to Hathaway. Traditional public and private nonprofits universities facing severe budget constraints are just now testing the waters of providing online degree programs. This January, Georgia Tech, in partnership with Udacity and AT&T, plans to offer a MOOC-based master’s degree in computer science for $6,600, $38,400 less than the same degree costs on campus. For the first time, an elite university is offering not only credit but a full degree program.  Hathaway believes that if successful, Georgia Tech’s endeavor will usher in the next wave of online degree programs and continue to accelerate the transformation of higher education. 

Hathaway believes that the emerging higher education landscape is sure to bode well for students, who will have more high-quality blended learning options at less cost than ever before. What services and technology will help brick-and-mortar institutions adapt to this new model? What specific ways will technology disrupt higher education and address the new ‘flipped model’ of being student/consumer driven? What will be the global ramifications and opportunity? How will competency based education come into play?  What will the impact be on Australia?  All these issues will continue to play out in the coming year.

Rohan Carr
December 2013 

Ms Ellen Hathaway is founder and Managing Director of Envision Search, an executive search firm based in California, USA, with deep expertise in the education, technology and digital industries.  www.envisionsearch.com

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