Something big is up in higher education thanks to the advent of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) that can teach millions of students simultaneously around the world. This new way of teaching and learning, together with employers’ growing frustration with the skills of graduates, could usher in a parallel universe of credentialing that may compete with traditional college degrees within a decade. This new regime has the potential to create enormous opportunities for students, employers and “star” teachers even as it upends the cost structure and practices of traditional campuses.
The key question now is how quickly these MOOCs will offer not just a breakthrough mode of learning and attaining skills, but bona fide credentials that students seek because employers value them. Once a sufficient infrastructure of credible exams and assessments around MOOCs is in place—Colorado State University’s Global Campus has already started giving credit for Udacity’s introductory computer programming course if the student passes a proctored exam—we’ll enter a new era in which employers will be in a position to act like Colorado State is today. That is, they’ll have the confidence to give job candidates “credit” for work done and certifications given outside the officially “accredited” institutions of higher education.
Once this challenge to the predominance of today’s accrediting institutions begins, a big chunk of higher education may experience the kind of disruption the music industry experienced a decade ago. Substitute “degrees” for “albums” and “self-selected credentials that employers value” for “playlists,” and you’ll have a feel for what may lie ahead.
But unless traditional institutions can capture meaningful revenue streams from these new online platforms—be they via textbooks, tutoring, proctored exams, per-course and per-degree fees, or creative alternatives not yet imagined—the online model may prove self-defeating. Because it will always take big investments to attract and retain the talent needed to develop world-class courses and materials, whether online or on campus. There simply have to be incentives to create compelling content if schools are to deliver the best teaching to anyone on the planet. That’s why MIT’s new president, L. Rafeal Reif, suggested in the Wall Street Journal recently that online students should pay modest fees to help the physical university sustain its mission.
While no one can predict the future precisely, it seems possible the parallel universe is leading us towards two versions of hybrid learning experiences in higher ed. On the one hand, students from wealthier families and those with adequate financial aid may prefer a campus-centric, residential experience (and the lifelong personal networks that come with it). In this model, technology could allow a more efficient and effective re-engineering of the learning experience, with lectures becoming digital and class time reserved for small group problem-solving and conversation. On the other hand, the cost/value equation could shift so rapidly in the years ahead that millions of students may select digital-centric, lower-cost alternatives with a core online component supplemented by self-organized study groups. These students could flourish without ever setting foot on traditional campuses.
Undoubtedly, there will be some tumult as we navigate this new world. But if we get it right, the prize—in terms of broader access, improved employability and deeper learning—involves untold benefits for students, employers and society.
Dua is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, where he leads the firm’s higher-education practice.