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3 Lurking Disruptors to the Future of Higher Education

You’ve all heard the arguments about the future of higher education and disruptive technologies that promise to upend the modern day university system. In many ways this debate is completely missing the mark when it comes to preparing students for the 21st century. For one, the online education model in its current form is simply replicating the brick and mortar model, while leaving much to be desired when it comes to a rich student learning experience. Additionally, endless hours and money are being spent on trying to work within a broken bureaucratic structure. The fundamental assumption not being challenged here is that the university’s role in society will remain the same despite new technology, changes in the workforce, and the seemingly unlimited access to information. This is why you’re not hearing about the following disruptors lurking on the horizon, which could create tremendous opportunity for university faculty, entrepreneurs, and students alike.

Neo-apprenticeships: Imagine for a moment that your child is filling out an application to Bill Gates (the individual not the foundation) rather than Harvard University. This may sound strange, but we can all agree that college students need real world training that is both relevant and provides the greatest potential for success in the 21st century. They also need to surround themselves with people who are adapting to change and creating new opportunities in real-time. You might be thinking that this is what internships are for. However, internships in their current form tend to be an addendum to the lecture-based classroom model, rather than the cornerstone of education it should be. Looking specifically at business education, many will agree that an MBA has very little real world value. I’m willing to bet that most MBA grads will tell you that the value of their degree lies in the network and connections it awards rather than the acquisition of accelerated business acumen. In the same way, neo-apprenticeship could provide experiential learning (replacing the value of undergraduate studies) along with access to valuable networks and connections (replacing the value of graduate studies). It’s a two-for-one deal. Not to mention the infusion of capital into both the public and private sector previously designated for college tuition.

Brand name professors: The greatest potential threat to the university system is a professorial mass exodus wherein every quality professor becomes a marketable entity with total freedom to teach outside of the stifling bureaucratic structure of the university. This could certainly quicken the death of tenure and result in the emergence of the “brand name professor.” The argument has long been made that the higher-quality professors and educators should be compensated greater than their peers who do not perform at the same level. This can be seen in the debates over union protection and charter school implementation, which are currently dividing the public education system. This is where reformation falls short and transformation is desperately needed. Why spend endless hours and money on trying to work within a broken bureaucratic structure? The higher education system has a unique and rare opportunity to create a completely new and vibrant structure in the 21st century, one that could ensure both profitability and the delivery of best quality education.

Peer-to-peer education: I have written a separate piece on this phenomenon alone, which you can read here. In simply looking at the immediate implication of students, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and community leaders freely sharing experiences or “how-to’s” and other practical and applicable solutions to problems, we can see that the current university system may find their customer turning into their greatest competitor.

The more I hear so-called expert analysis on the future of education, new business models, and competing delivery methods, the more obvious it becomes that the traditional university system is unaware that it exists in the Information Age. Current technology is rendering the delivery method of education less relevant, while creating new markets for the deliverer to become more prevalent. At the same time, when considering its future value proposition, the higher education system must not confuse access to information with access to intellectual capital. The solution then becomes clear. In order for the university system to survive, it must re-invent itself as a broker rather than captor of intellectual property.

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