C&B Notes

Could Universities Follow Borders Bookstores into Oblivion?

We are passionate about the topic of education and think there is the potential, if not the probability, that over the coming decades the education industry could be disrupted like the newspaper industry has recently been.  The consumers (i.e. students) are likely to be much better off, but in many cases we are not sure that current institutions will evolve quickly enough to survive.

Q. What are some of the most important changes happening now?

Mr. DeMillo: What you’re seeing, for example, is technology enabling a single master teacher to reach students on an individualized basis on a scale that is unprecedented. So when Sebastian Thrun offers his Intro to Robotics course and gets 150,000 students — that’s a big deal.  Why is it a big deal?  Well, because people who want to learn robotics want to learn from the master.  And there’s something about the medium that he uses that makes that connection intimate.  It’s not the same kind of connection that you get by pointing a camera at the front of the room and letting someone write on a whiteboard.  These guys have figured out how to design a way of explaining the material that connects with people at scale.  So Stanford all of a sudden becomes a place with a network of stakeholders that’s several orders of magnitude larger than it was 10 years ago.  Every one of those students in India that wants to connect to Stanford now — connect to a mentor now — has a way to connect by bypassing their local institutions.  Every institution that can’t offer a robotics course now has a way of offering a robotics course.

I think what you see happening now with the massive open courses is going to fundamentally change the business models.  It’s going to put the notion of value front and center.  Why would I want a credential from this university?  Why would I want to pay tuition to this university?  It really ups the stakes.

Mr. Baker: There used to be something called Borders, you may remember.  Think of Borders, the bookstore, “X, Y, Z University,” the bookstore.  If you’ve got Amazon as an analogue for these massively open courses, there is still a model where people actually go into bookstores because sometimes they want to touch, or they like hanging out, or there’s other value offered by that.  What it means is that the university needs to rethink what it’s doing, how it’s doing it.  And how it innovates in a way of surviving in the face of this.  If I can do the Amazon equivalent of this open course, why should I come here?  Well, maybe you shouldn’t.  And that’s a client that is lost.

By the way, we found the online home for Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities worth a peek.

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