A new model for higher education?

Last month I mentioned that business schools, through their graduate degrees and executive education programmes, might be the first to feel the heat of the changing market for higher education. Turns out that may not be true – it might be the undergraduate market, quickly followed by the rest of higher education. Globally.

Arizona State University, or ASU, and edX, a partnership between MIT and Harvard, recently announced an initiative that will allow students to do their entire first year of an undergraduate programme online.

According to the announcement of this new "alternative entry into higher education" on ASU’s website:

“The Global Freshman Academy will give learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn freshman-level university credit after successfully completing a series of digital immersion courses hosted on edX, designed and taught by leading scholars from ASU.

“By allowing students to learn, explore and complete courses before applying or paying for credit, the Global Freshman Academy reimagines the freshman year and reduces academic and monetary stress while opening a new path to a college degree for many students.”

While the ASU-edX announcement mentions that students can take their freshman-level courses online, there is a clause in the contract stating:

“Institution [ASU] will evaluate other MOOCs [massive open online courses] offered on the edX site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such MOOCs.”

A bespoke degree

In last month’s post, I wondered aloud about when someone would devise the All-Star MBA, whereby one institution – be it a school or another organisation – would award or accept credit from a variety of education providers, be it MOOCs or other types of online, on-campus, or other forms of higher education, and bundle them together to award a degree.

With the contract clause above, students might be able to take courses or MOOCs from a variety of ‘rock star’ professors across the globe and string them together to create a bespoke degree. This would be akin to the All-Star MBA I mentioned in the last post, only bigger – it could be an All-Star degree of any kind. True, accreditors still need to weigh in on the new initiative, but still.

Some good news for students

If accreditors are on board with the new initiative and ASU begins to offer credit for MOOCs or content from other universities and-or vendors, this raises some wonderful opportunities for students, including:
  • • The ability to study nearly any subject from some of the best instructors in the world, no matter where the student or the various faculty reside, and earn a degree (and potentially other credentials) in the process;
  • • Access to high-quality content from a variety of universities, and potentially other vendors, accredited by a university known for increasing access to higher education and higher-than-average retention in online courses;
  • • The ability to pay for courses only once they are passed – meaning that students can take them as many times as they want or need until they master the material and pass the course. Interestingly, this appears to move the education model towards competency-based education, as students ‘take the test’ when they know they’re ready, proving competence;
  • • A low-cost alternative to on-campus education. The cost for eight freshman courses would be approximately US$6,000, significantly less than what many colleges charge for tuition and fees;
  • • The ability to study at the student’s desired pace – this can also be a negative if students interpret ‘anytime, anywhere’ as ‘sometime, somewhere, just not now’.
A brilliant stroke for ASU (and edX)?

This arrangement puts ASU in a great position to be a ‘credit bundler’ and therefore a university to the world. In essence, by being a first-mover in awarding credits for MOOCs – theirs and others – ASU could become the largest university in the world.

While the courses originally slated for first-year freshmen may not be a threat to business schools, future courses may be more business-related and raise the possibility of ASU becoming the largest business school in the world, too.

Given that over one in five US undergraduate degrees and one in four masters degrees are currently in business, and ASU has a business school – and recently acquired the Thunderbird School of Global Management – I suspect that business courses and degrees could be a path ASU will choose to pursue.

Some important questions

This new initiative between ASU and edX also raises a few questions that we all might consider as this unfolds:
  • • Might this become a global phenomenon?
  • • Will the creation of MOOCs by well-known faculty at highly respected universities, like much of the current edX content, ‘crowd out’ faculty and courses from other universities?
  • • Will arrangements like this drive a wedge into the higher education market, enhancing the star power of the best-known universities and leaving the universities with less-developed brands weaker?
  • • If many students pursue content through the Global Freshman Academy, or similar arrangements that are likely to pop up, there will be pressure on other universities to accept transfer credit for these courses and the resulting loss of revenue at the universities accepting the transfer credit could be significant.
  • • If more universities follow a model similar to ASU, could we eventually end up with a handful of ‘top’ universities producing the content and a small number of large universities offering the degrees?
And some people think that higher ed is slow-moving…

Margaret Andrews is an academic leader, instructor and consultant. Academic leadership positions have included vice-provost at Hult International Business School, where she managed a global academic team across five campuses in four countries; associate dean of management programs at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education or DCE; and executive director of the MBA Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, USA. She teaches a variety of leadership and strategy courses at Harvard DCE and is also the managing director of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at margaret@mind-and-hand.com.