Universities ‘are declining’ due to digital disruptors

Technology is transforming the way students learn and while world-class universities such as Harvard University may be less vulnerable than other institutions, digital disruption is inevitable and is already happening, sending universities into decline, according to a keynote speaker at the ‘EnlightED: Reinventing education in a digital world’ conference in Spain.

The conference drew an international audience of around 1,000 to debate questions like: ‘How is technology transforming education? What opportunities does it bring to enable access to learning? What are the main challenges in the world of edtech?’

The event took place from 3-5 October at La N@ve in Madrid and was organised by Fundación Telefónica, IE University (a private non-profit university owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL), and South Summit (a ‘leading innovation global platform focused on business opportunities and disruptive trends’).

Michael Horn, co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute and keynote speaker on the subject of ‘disrupting college: the future of higher education’, immediately threw down the gauntlet to delegates by arguing that the term ‘disruptive innovation’ has been frequently misused, especially by those with wealth and expertise.

He argued, drawing on examples from the computer and automobile industries, that when disruption appears, those in the ‘inner circle’ look at it and say ‘Why would I want that?’, but that disruption often spreads out to make things more affordable and convenient “to bless the lives of those who previously never could have had access to it”. At that time, when the quality is right and the price has dropped, those in the ‘inner circle’ rush out to get it.

In the context of higher education institutions like Harvard, because of its reputation and wealth, it could not be disrupted by ‘outsider universities’, but now online learning is fundamentally transforming the way students learn. More than 25% of masters students are now fully online and “universities are declining” as a result, he said.

Each person has their own learning pace and online learning offers the promise of personalised learning and meeting individual student’s needs. “Our educational institutions were intentionally modelled on factories to standardise teaching and testing,” he said, and this means that “like Swiss cheese”, students are left with “holes in their learning”.

Horn explained how the Clayton Christensen Institute regularly “tests and assesses” on their online courses, and gave an example of how a student who was fourth from bottom in a maths class was transformed into one who was fourth from the top by identifying the “few specific gaps” he had in his learning that were holding him back.

Students learn in different ways and have different needs. “The time period varies but the learning is fixed; the student gets real time feedback and then only moves to the next step when they have passed.”

Horn’s institute works innovatively by employing ‘assessment specialists’ who look, for example, at how students can truly master a task, and other staff who are dedicated to redesigning learning programmes when necessary.

“The reality is that most universities have offered online courses but they have not disrupted anything; they have simply used it to sustain what they do. They continue with the lecture room model and do not take advantage of the available technology to make education cheaper.”

Horn’s speech was followed by a question and answer session that included Sanjay Sarma, vice-president for open learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and Diego del Alcázar, vice-president of IE University in Spain. Alcazár kicked off by asking Sarma if he would be happy if his 16-year-old daughter wanted to do an online course instead of going to university.

“I want my daughter to go to college because of conversations with other students in the coffee shop, the social aspect and so on,” he replied, “but I think online courses will get much better in the future.”

The discussion moved onto the merits of the Minerva model, in which students travel around the world and interact with other students to gain multicultural experience, but all their academic work is done online.

“At around US$10,000 per year it is less expensive … but the experience is phenomenal and accessible to many,” said Horn.

The advantages of the edX model – where the course is free but you pay to receive a certificate – was raised, but far more interesting was the debate over the merits of MIT’s micro-masters model. “In a first semester we offer MOOCs [massive open online courses] to everyone who wants them,” Sarma explained, “but then we have a tough exam at the end and those who pass are invited to join the micro-masters course.”

MIT recognises what students have done up to that point with credits and as a consequence they now have around half a million students enrolled on their micro-masters courses. “We now offer 25 micro-masters across four continents,” he said.

“I am blown away by the MIT model,” Horn concluded, “I would be happy for my kids to go there and to pay for something like that.”