How Education Startups Will Change Higher Education

They’re struggling. The Department of Education, state-level oversight departments, regional accrediting agencies and program-specific accrediting agencies continue to have difficulty responding to current and emerging innovations in education. Add the complex bureaucracies and centuries-old academic cultures within higher education institutions and we have a perfect storm that stifles progress and new possibilities for formal learning in a digital age. The recent conversations about direct assessment and new approaches to competency-based education highlights such a challenge. Many of these groups are slowing and hindering innovation in higher education, while often not realizing that this is the logical result of their efforts.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While some attribute that quote to Henry Ford, others point out that the true source is unknown. Regardless, it represents the role of these agencies and organizations in higher education. They are sometimes closed to the possibility of the automobile equivalent of higher education innovation. Their comfort zone is with evaluating schools on the speed of their horses. They reward and accredit better industrial universities, while remaining clumsy when it comes to imagining or supporting visions of post-industrial, non-hierarchical higher education.

At the 2013 Educational Innovation Summit, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, explained that there are three types of universities: élite, industrial age universities, and innovative universities. Crow suggested that the élite schools are the most insulated from the impact of innovation. They have extremely positive brand equity. They have a financial model that does not rely on tuition. And they a have a long waiting line of people wanting to join their community (whether it is students, staff, or faculty).

Then there are the industrial age universities. These schools are less insulated from the changes and innovations in higher education. They function with a traditional model established amid the industrial revolution. Some of their practices clash with the emerging nature of an information and digital age, but they tend to persist with past practices. Some make grand and convincing arguments about why they should not change. Others have trouble taking many of the innovations seriously because they believe so strongly in what has been done and what they continue to do. According to Crow, these industrial universities need exemplars that can point them in promising directions.

Finally, there are the innovative universities. These are the ones exploring, experimenting and even setting aside some of the industrial practices, replacing them with new models. They are bold, imaginative, informed about current trends and innovations, and they are re-imagining higher education. They are often criticized because they challenge longstanding traditions and defined roles in academia. They are not simply replicating what the university next door is doing, nor are they trying to model themselves after the élite schools.

All three university types, but especially the industrial and innovative, continue to be largely shaped and influenced by external bodies and government oversight agencies. These outside groups set up rules and standards based upon past practice in higher education. They use measures that people understand from past generations. They have a bias toward the traditional and the familiar, and while some practices like online learning have been assimilated, they continue to set up criteria for “quality” or “excellence” based upon past models. Even so, the élite universities remain insulated. They are far more comfortable ignoring some of the regional accrediting agency standards. As one person explained to me. The difference between élite universities and the rest is this. At the average university, people dress up and put their best foot forward for visitors from the accrediting agencies. At élite universities, the accreditors dress up and put their best foot forward.

What are the possible outcomes from all this?

Shifting “Market Share”

We are in an age of democratized knowledge, information and learning opportunities. Education startups are on the rise, and more of them are offering alternate routes to learning that do not depend upon formal learning organizations. They don’t deal in credits, degrees or federal aid; so they don’t have to worry about external accrediting bodies or as much government oversight. They are free to innovative in a way that focuses upon customer satisfaction and benefit to the end user.

One possible future for higher education is that it will shrink, unable to provide what the education companies offer. These companies are more innovative, agile, often driven by end user data, and they are not complicated by hundreds of years of traditions. They listen to what people want and need, and they are less likely to condescendingly declare that, “We know what is best for you.” As such, one possible future is that a percentage of learners and organizations will no longer turn to universities for help. They will go to for-profit and non-profit learning organizations that function apart from government oversight and accrediting standards, but they will demand that we judge all according to the learning that results from their products and services.

If the outside agencies keep it up, a third to half of what colleges and universities do may be lost to companies that are not bound by such groups or rules. Is that a bad thing? That depends upon your perspective. It might mean more options for learners. Some in higher education embrace such a claim, arguing that it lets universities focus upon what is most important to them anyway. Others are troubled by it, especially those with missions and values associated with increasing access and opportunity.  It as if universities are playing a board game and someone gleefully change the rules every few turns. Yet, some playing the game don’t have to follow any of the rules. As such, I expect a branch of “higher education” to emerge within the next decade that will largely bypass many regional accreditors, and I anticipate more models like Patten University that opt out of the financial aid program so that they have more freedom and flexibility in their offerings.

The Rise of the Innovative University

We might just see the decline of the industrial university and the persistence of the élite and innovative universities. The innovative universities may well explore educational offerings that go far beyond courses, credits, degrees and programs. This has been going on for decades with some of the most robust continuing education units at schools. We see it happening with some competency-based education and direct assessment programs. Perhaps more will come from such efforts, providing a larger variety of educational formats and offerings, some of which do not require financial aid or outside accreditors. The career track programs that are already highly regulated (like many healthcare professions) may well remain tied to outside oversight, but many other offerings can flourish by finding ways to be free from time-consuming outside rules and expectations.

A Re-imagination of Oversight

Another possible future is that more accrediting agencies will adjust what they measure, looking less at minutia and trappings, and more at results. Right now there are many expectations from various accrediting bodies about the appropriate percentage of adjunct versus full-time faculty, what formal degrees faculty must hold, library resources, and any number of items. In other words, they are directing what the University should look like instead of focusing upon outcomes. As this changes, perhaps we will see universities freed to embrace the best of their past while also venturing into new models like competency-based education, learning environments that unbundle the traditional role of professor, and tracks that are tied directly to employer needs.

 The more regulated the sector, the more difficult it is to make predictions about the future. As such, any musings about the future of formal education organizations are tentative at best. Yet, we are witnessing the rise of less regulated educational offerings through innovative startups. As these unchained offerings expand, they are bound to have an impact on higher education as a whole. Either they will disruptive, decrease, or re-define the direction of colleges and universities.

2 thoughts on “How Education Startups Will Change Higher Education

  1. Harv Schmit

    Outcome focused evaluation is the direction of CAEP and InTASC standards that are the measure of teacher preparation in Michigan. Great, but at the same time historical and other external expectations remain and in some cases are more fine grained than in the past. We may see a world in which innovations and outcomes are the rule, but institutions remain under industrial expectations as well.

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