College 2.0: A New Age of Learning

For a hundred years or more, America’s greatest institutions of higher learning have relied on a tried and true recipe for success: Hire the greatest minds in our society as professors and charge students a fee to be able to learn from the lectures and stories that those great minds would tell in their classrooms. The recipe served colleges and universities well for so long is now being threatened by two factors: The exponentially rising cost of a college education and the increasing availability of free knowledge as a commodity through the Internet. Higher education today is facing a brutal reality that could threaten the very fabric of the system in much the same way that the music industry had to find a way to reinvent itself when peer-to-peer file sharing sites like Napster first came into being over a decade ago.

Jessica Hullinger recently wrote about the Future of Education, giving several reasons why higher education won’t die, but it will undergo some radical transformations in the next decade in response to the threatening factors noted above. Hullinger writes, “Experts say that within the next 10 to 15 years, the college experience will become rapidly unbundled. Lecture halls will disappear, the role of the professor will transform, and technology will help make a college education much more attainable than it is today, and much more valuable. Indeed, a number of institutions may shut down. But those that survive will be innovative and efficient.”

Hullinger went on to describe how America’s most innovative colleges have started to do away with using the Carnegie Unit and Credit Hours, the idea that learning is referenced by the amount of “seat time” that a student accrues by attending a college class. Replacing that model is the notion of competency education, the idea that learning is referenced through specific skills (competencies) that students must master in each college course.

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America program is being held up as a gold standard in our country for what the next generation of colleges will look like. Using this competency-based model, this program has positioned itself as a much more affordable, relevant learning model that better prepares students to be successful in their professional careers. College for America exclusively admits students through their employers, a model that they believe helps their program stay more relevant to the workplace. In a speech back in August of 2013, President Obama applauded SNHU’s approach, stating that it “gives students credit for how well they master the material,'' and noting that ''If you are learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less.''

In the old model, knowledge had to be delivered through lectures, and tuition became the gate fee for students to be allowed into the classroom to listen to those lectures. With the rise of the Internet, access to knowledge is expanding at an unprecedented rate. Many college-age students today simply can’t justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt they would accumulate by financing this tuition when they could simply stay at home and watch those same lectures from their device or computer. Innovative colleges now recognize their need to replace their “sage on the stage” professors with “guides on the side” who facilitate student learning through specialized and personalized learning experiences like project-based learning.

When it is necessary, the delivery of content through lecture could still be attained through a variety of open-source and subscription-based platforms. Colleges are quickly realizing there may even be a market for them to sell their lectures online. Last month, for example, Harvard University announced plans for the Harvard Business School to Expand its Online Initiative to Other Liberal Arts Colleges. The pilot allows Harvard to use its “brand name” to sell its knowledge delivery system in a new, affordable way.

For this father of five children all under the age of ten, news that a new model may help make college more affordable could not come soon enough to my wife Erica and I. The story of the transformation of America’s higher education system may be one of the most fascinated tales of the twenty first century, and one that might have one of the largest social impacts that our country has seen in a long, long time. Now the question remains, do I still need to get those college funds started?


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