The Education Superhighway

by Chris Cullen, Managing Director

Massive Open Online Courses 

If you were an adult in business in the early ‘90s, someone in your office was going on and on about the all-changing new “information superhighway.” That person was almost always obnoxious. Not only because they were redundant and right, but because they were talking about something that was not only a mystery, but almost certainly a threat.

I was in the hotel business at the time and one of the things I was responsible for was booking conventions for our franchisees. The sales staff for convention hotels would send their bulky FedEx boxes with spec sheets in giant three-ring binders and you could peruse pictures of their breakout rooms and restaurants tucked into transparent sleeves. None of it was consistently presented, remotely current or slightly trustworthy. There was no other way to be certain, it was going to be up to me, personally, to fly annually to the top convention cities like Las Vegas, San Francisco and New Orleans and stay at places such as Caesars Palace, the Fairmont Hotel and the Hilton New Orleans Riverside to see them firsthand.

The Internet didn’t kill the convention business, but it made it more frictionless (fewer bathrobes and complimentary playing chips) for amateur convention planners. And it made many of these in-person trips less necessary because the information the planner needed was readily and more efficiently and comprehensively available on the grid.

Now the great information superhighway has completed an exit ramp that leads right through the center of college campuses across the United States and the world. Already delivered via the “ISH” is comprehensive access to academic offerings and ratings for prospective students, as well as financial aid and social media evaluations shared among the populations of prospects, not to mention the exponential and phantom explosion of applications brought about by the common app. These things have significantly revolutionized the way prospects students choose colleges to consider and select as well as the way colleges decide on prospects to accept.

That was just the beginning. Then came the MOOC. (Download our guide to MOOCs below).

According to media and digital guru Sean Carton, “…we think that 2013 is going to be looked back on by the education industry in the same way that the music industry looks back on 2001 (the year before file-sharing free-for-all service Napster was shut down): the turning point when the industry changed forever.”

This prognostication is entirely feasible in large part because of these MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses from the faculty at the world’s finest institutions. These courses are offered to anyone with Internet access for free and are being led by faculty from places such as Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, MIT and Harvard. But these are only the tips of the evolutionary icebergs; these MOOCs have sparked forward the maturation of an entirely new industry extension and a slow-moving but relentless revolution in higher education. You can’t help but be inspired by listening to one of the online courseware pioneers Daphne Koller talk about her company Coursera at TED.

So the question is not whether higher education will continue as it has for decades, of course not, it would be the only business category immune to the ISH. It is not immune, this is happening.

The question is instead how will we recognize the winners in this revolution?

To hear the Coursera founders speak, you realize that these MOOCs are an exercise in grand philanthropy and optimism, developed to bring opportunity to those who would not normally experience it, superior education to a population of people without the means to achieve it otherwise. This phenomenon is premised on precisely the same cause that is the foundation for all truly great colleges. Many leading educators and their institutions will fully embrace it, encourage, support and expand it and soon accredit it. Of course, it will also be monetized, but poorly and slowly—which is good, because there are speed bumps and duck ponds and lacrosse fields that sprinkle the Education Superhighway and the speed limit is significantly reduced.

And fret not, even in the distant future, there will always be a physical destination for someone with the time and money to spend on a fabulous life-changing experience, because people still go to Vegas, San Francisco and New Orleans. If you can go, you should.

There’s just so much that you can expect to experience on the grid.

Chris Cullen helps develop authentic, enduring and inclusive solutions for leaders in the increasingly competitive higher education marketplace. He can be reached at 240-482-4966 and ccullen@infiniagroup.com.

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