Will Google Eventually Lose Its Dominance in College Search?

Betting against a powerhouse advertising company like Google on almost anything in the digital world might seem like betting against Russell Westbrook in one-on-one against a middle schooler of your choice. Google has the talent, track record, global respect, and long list of wins that make it the obvious choice in almost any head-to-head battle in the marketplace, at least one that is within Google’s wheelhouse. It is this last statement that settles my stomach as I take a risk and make the call about Google’s role in college search.

Right now, it is arguable that Google (and Youtube) is the leading venue through which most people connect to and explore higher education options. They get on their device of choice and start searching by school name, modality, degree type, major, and related terms. They go to Google and compose questions not unlike what you might imagine people discussing with an informed relative or high school counselor in the past.

I’m in the middle of writing a series of articles about the role of big data and AI in the future of higher education (This is not one of those articles. It is related, but must ultimately be described as mild procrastination.). These articles are meant to reflect what has been years of formal and informal research on this subject. As I explained in the first article in that series, I put higher education data into five major categories, with the first related to learner-college search and connections. In my second article, I will describe an important metaphor shift that is occurring with learner-college search and connections. Without giving that away quite yet, I will say that Google’s current approach is unlikely to hold up to what is coming.

Google remains first an advertising company, and higher education institutions are not an insignificant part of the advertising dollars paid to Google. This puts Google in an interesting position. The company has a stake in maintaining the status quo when it comes to how people use Google to search for colleges. They can tweak the system, but if they break it, that hurts financially.

“Disrupt yourself before others do.” That might be a favorite quote turned cliche in Silicon Valley and the startup world, but in the real world, that is not easy to do. In fact, it is incredibly rare, even from some of the most innovative organizations led by executives who know and agree with the wisdom in such a statement.

That is what came to mind for me when I read the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Google Wants to Play a Bigger Role in Your College Search. Here’s What You Need to Know.” Essentially, the article explains how Google intends to include data from the College Scorecard (a flawed representation of data that I wrote about several years ago) and the Integrated Post-Secondary Education System Data System. In other words, Google is adding some value and insight from these data sets, but it is ultimately a safe move, and not one that forces too much of an immediate change in Google’s business strategies associated with higher education advertising.

To illustrate why I contend that Google will ultimately lose this “market” unless they take a more aggressive “disrupt yourself” approach, I will pose five questions.

  • If you want to find a date using a digital tool, what would you use or where would you go?
  • If you want to search for reviews and/or buy a book online, where would you go?
  • If you want to search for a new job in your field, where do you search online?
  • If you want to find reviews of movies to watch, where do you search online?
  • If you want to find and purchase a used product online, where do you search?

Google makes money that comes from all five of the areas represented in the questions above, but each of these questions also point us to what some refer to as platforms. More generally, answers to each of these questions draw our attention to instances where a significant percentage of people do not persistently turn to Google for answers. They might start by using Google to investigate various dating sites, but people probably end up going with one or a few of them. From that stage on, they are on the dating site, and not Google, at least not when it comes to finding a date. The same can be said for many people when it comes to buying a book (or other products), finding jobs, getting movie reviews, and posting or searching posts of used products. Google still makes some money as people compete to be the platform of choice, but not necessarily as much as if Google were more central to people’s ongoing search.

College search will go the way of dating sites and job boards, only it will be even more nuanced in its sorting and recommendations. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms blended with robust and vetted qualitative reviews and social connections are well on their way to college search. Options like this abound, but they largely represent first generation prototypes. Wait for the generation to see some disruption. Google might have a few years, maybe even 5-10, but change is coming, and it appears that a central business model that revolves around advertising puts Google at a competitive disadvantage, at least if Google wants to even get in the range of claiming to offer search services that improve the quality of one’s choice about college. So, for now it seems that the decision is to play it safe with data sets that create new winners and losers in the higher education game. In the end, however, it is seeming to me like Google might just end up being one in the losing category.

Solve the Higher Education Debt Problem by Making College Less Necessary

There is a grocery store nearby that I used to frequent. It provides quality products and I valued the brands and selection. Over the years the management or ownership clearly made a decision to establish the store as a premium spot, and one of the main ways that they did this was by significantly increasing the prices. I kept going there as did many others, but we complained about the prices to one another. So, why did we keep going there? When I finally came to my senses, I looked around for other options and found any number of great alternatives with far more competitive prices.

Sometimes it seems like there is a parallel in modern higher education. Consider the countless complaints in the form of articles lamenting the massive rise in tuition over the years, the growing college debt for graduates, as well as graduates failing to find jobs that they deem as a valid justification for such cost and debt. Yet, people keep going. In fact, even as we complain about the costs, we seem to be just as passionate about advocating for even more people going to college.

While some seek a solution to at least part of these concerns by lobbying for tax-funded tuition free college education opportunities or capping the cost of college, I offer an alternative that might be even more effective at addressing the concerns about cost, debt, and employment. What if we stopped going to college, or at least reduced the role of college as the required gateway to countless careers and opportunities? There are many ways to learn a given body of knowledge and skills, and if we are willing to let go of our attachment to college as “the way” and instead recognize it as what it as “a way”, then we open up an entirely new set of possibilities. What if we invested more time and resources in creating a learning ecosystem where college is one of many learning pathways to a growing number of careers?

This removes the debt and has potential to increase access and opportunity to living wages without higher education gatekeepers holding the keys to such work. If college is less necessary and less common for getting the jobs to which many aspire, we might actually make more progress in solving the debt problem than by reform efforts.

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of college, only that we stop looking at it as the only way to accomplish the goal of reach learning goals that lead to gainful employment and the associated access and opportunity. This calls for employers reconsidering the criteria that they put on job postings. It also requires professions focusing more upon verifying that people are qualified for the profession instead of dictating the ways in which one reaches that qualification. This goes back to what I’ve called The Lincoln Test (the title of a book that I’m writing). Lincoln didn’t go to law school but he passed the bar and become a lawyer. Why can’t we do more of that for a larger array of professions? Then we can add countless and various priced learning opportunities that can help people reach that qualification. We can create a competitive marketplace for such learning that ranges from simple self-study to tutors, short courses, online learning environments, computer-aided instruction, experiential learning opportunities, and anything else that we can think up. We just have to be sure not to make the same mistake of pouring tons of public funding into these training opportunities or over-regulating them. That will just drive the price up…just like college. Instead, let the ecosystem grow a wonderful and somewhat wild garden of learning.

This doesn’t require massive or overnight changes in the short-term. It can begin with individual professions as well as employers being open to alternative pathways…eventually not even calling them alternatives. They are just pathways. As more professions do this, ecosystem will grow and we may soon find that there are far fewer concerns about the cost or debt associated with college, because colleges will no longer serve as trolls under the bridge to career and related opportunities.

Some say that such a suggestion is an attack on higher education. While this would probably result in a decline in college enrollment, I contend that in the midterm, it might actually help colleges reconnect with the greatest value that they can offer society.

How AI Will Transform Education & Why Now is the Time to Start Preparing for It

Stay with me. I want to offer a few considerations about what I consider the inevitable transformation of education by artificial intelligence, but to do so, I’m going to first invite you into my childhood and early college years for a moment. It might not seem related to AI, but if you bear with me, I promise to offer you a few important and incredibly relevant considerations, as well as an important challenge and invitation.

Mr. Bently was an extraordinary teacher. Life wasn’t always easy in my elementary school years. Many others faced far greater challenges to be sure, but suffice it to say that when I went to school, it was not easy to set aside worries and concerns from outside of school enough to get the most out of what happened in most of my classes. Nonetheless, when I walked up to the room to enter Mr. Bentley’s class, he consistently greeted me and every other student at the door. As he wished us each a good morning, he also paid attention to the little things and deliberately said something that made each of us keenly aware that he cared about us and noticed us.

During class, he applied that same care and attention to each lesson. He seemed to notice small shifts in facial expressions that hinted at frustration, fear, or confusion. Not that he always came to the rescue, but he had a way of showing that he noticed while encouraging us to persist with a challenging problem. He listened to what we said, noticed what we didn’t say, keenly observed our nonverbal messages, and clearly worked to help cultivate a positive learning environment, most of the time without giving hardly any direct instructions.

I remember many caring teachers, but Mr. Bently stood apart from the rest as I think about teachers who listened, observed, and adjusted accordingly with such care and skill. How much did he care and pay attention? Twelve years after being his student, I was going into the summer after my freshman year of college. I had a summer job, but on a whim, while driving by an insurance company in my home town, I decided to stop in and ask if they had any summer openings. The next thing that I knew, I was in a beautiful office, speaking with the branch manager. Impressed with my initiative, he offered me a job on the spot, serving in their call center, working lists of prospective customers. Using a simple script, I spent evenings calling name after name, introducing myself by name and asking if they had interest in reviewing their insurance coverage. If so, my job was to schedule an appointment between that person and an available agent.

I didn’t enjoy the job. Making the calls and talking to people was enjoyable enough, but the list that I used included some problems. First, some of the people that I called were already customers, and they were often offended that I didn’t know as much. The worst calls were when I would ask for a given person, only to find out that this person passed away in the recent past. Imagine calling a person, asking for the spouse, only to discover that the spouse died in a car accident the day before, resulting in audible sobbing as you struggled for what to say. Out of a list of a couple thousand names, I remain amazed at how many deceased people were included on that list (Note that this was in the early 1990s, long before current methods for such work). One day, working through a new list, I reached the “B”s and found myself calling a number and asking for a “Mr. Bently.” A woman answered the phone and as I said, “Hi, my name is Bernard Bull…” the woman stopped me. “Bernard? Bernard Bull?” I confirmed. “Oh, my husband will be so delighted to speak with you.” This was the wife of my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Bently!

Did you catch that? Twelve years after being in this class, the wife of Mr. Bently recognized my name in an instant, and when I spoke to him, his memory of even the smallest details about me were fully intact. In an instant, it was like I was walking into Mr. Bently’s class all over again, experiencing that incredible felling of care, recognition, and belonging. I felt noticed and important to someone else, and it felt amazing. I don’t think that I went on with the rest of my script.

It would almost sound like blasphemy to think that artificial intelligence could ever replace a Mr. Bently. A good part of me continues to believe that no non-human system will ever serve as a substitute for the incredible and formative experience of being noticed and cared for by a teacher like Mr. Bently. Beyond that, he was a master of listening and observation, and he used that to help me and countless others learn. A great teacher like him is truly gifted at the art (and science?) of noticing nuances in learners and responding accordingly.

Perhaps that sort of a deeply human and meaningful interaction is only possible between two humans. Yet, we are on the verge of an age when artificial intelligence is inching, or sometimes leaping, toward noticing countless nuances. Consider what non-human systems can extract from a single still image of a person, breaking down facial expressions into the various combinations of muscles and movements in the face, even noticing the development of some muscles over others, potentially hinting at patterns of expression and emotion over time. These systems are emerging that promise to detect lies, fear and anxiety, interest, confusion, and more. Imagine a system that demonstrates the same capacity to notice nuances in our posture, tone of voice, choice of words (spoken and written), online habits and actions over time, in person action and habits over time, or reaction to various stimuli and contexts, and our response to any other sensory experience in the world. We are already partly there. Consider this enhanced by the ability to interpret what is happening in a person on the basis on heart rate, brain wave, and eye dilation, blood flow to various parts of the body, and other involuntary physical responses; comparing all of these “data points” to a massive database in order to diagnose and adapt.

Does this seem far-fetched? Scan the news and you will find articles about AI detecting skin cancer better than doctors, AI that can determine sexual orientation through still images, experiments with AI lie-detectors for border control, and AI behavioral systems being used in schools within China? We are talking about technology that is already getting heavy use in finance, healthcare, political strategy, security, social media, and yes, education. We might not have systems in education that are as advanced as I mentioned in the last paragraph, but we are well on our way.

Consider what happens as we reach a time when such technological observation is combined with the most current research on knowledge and skill acquisition.  An artificially intelligent cyber-tutor will constantly read, analyze, and adapt learning experiences to maximize learner interest and progress. As these systems advance, they will far exceed the capacity of any human to facilitate learning for large numbers of learners, even across time and place. This is the future of adaptive learning, personalized learning, as well as individualized instruction. It is, I contend, inevitable and irreversible.

Will these systems greet students at the door? Will there even be a door or a classroom? That is yet to be seen. Will they fill the deeply human need to be noticed and cared for by another human? Even if they can, I personally hope that we count the cost before going that direction. My life today richer because Mr. Bently noticed and cared, and I’m not ready to sacrifice that at the altar of artificial intelligence. At the same time, there is incredible promise and possibility with such technology, and I’m not ready to sacrifice that on the other altar of nostalgia and sentimentality. Rather, I like to think that we can join in co-creating a future of education where the best of these two worlds come together, creating deeply human and caring communities that are transformed and enhanced by carefully considered artificial intelligence systems.

In addition, there are many learning needs throughout life that are already less high-touch and we are fine with that. We turn to online video tutorials to learn a new skill, read books and online guides, opt for largely impersonal training, use educational apps, and blend our learning throughout life with a mix of learning environments and formats. Some are human-driven. Others are not. As such, those in the latter category as well as those areas where the human-driven learning is falling short are both prime candidates for disruption, or at least significant experimentation as we explore the possibilities, affordances, and limitations of artificial intelligence in education.

There is much that we don’t know about the future of education. There are countless trends and innovations that will come and go. Artificial intelligence is not one of them. It is here to stay. It will continue to grow. It will find its way into an increasing number of contexts, eventually transforming many of them. The question is whether we are going to do the good and important work of helping to shape that transformation in positive ways, or whether we will simply let AI take the lead through lazy thinking, naivety, technological fatalism, or something else.  Getting informed and involved in the conversation now is your chance to be a co-creator of that future. Now is the time for quick, low risk experimentation, careful consideration, wise thinking, and wide-spread discussion. I offer this article as one way to help spark that conversation.

School is One Spoke in the Wheel of Learning & Why This is a Critical Insight for the Future of Education

School is just one spoke in the wheel of lifelong learning. The more that I engage in conversations about the future of education, and how to promote greater access and opportunity for life and work today, the more important this simple truth becomes to me. It is important for us to remember that most learning in life happens outside of school…without a formal teacher designing and directing the experiences. In our conversations about the future of education (or the present state of education for that matter), we sometimes lose sight of this important reality.

While sources report a range, almost all of them agree that the average person today and in the future will hold anywhere from five to fifteen different jobs before retirement. In a past study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers reported over 1/4th of people having more than 15 different jobs by the age of 48. Granted, many of these are jobs in the same or a similar line of work, but we are looking at the average person changing careers five or more times, and many more making partial career shifts (like a classroom teacher going into instructional design or corporate training, or moving into a management or leadership position within one’s field). Even when shifting between similar jobs, there is often a significant learning curve. Add to this the constant change of technology and we get a clear picture that work in the 21st and 22nd centuries includes ongoing learning, re-learning, and un-learning…and most of this without a classroom or a formal teacher coordinating the learning. Consider the many ways in which people learn what they need to stay current in a job, shift to a similar job, develop skills that transfer to work environments, move into leadership within one’s field, or make a full career shift.

  • Get another degree, complete a degree, or earn a first degree while working. Some would like us to think that this is the most common route, but a closer look at the workplace and workforce of today indicates that this is the exception for many people. Or, even where it is commonplace, this is only a fraction of the learning that is taking place.
  • Taking one or more college credit-based classes in a new area (face-to-face, blended, or online).
  • Taking one or more continuing education classes from a college, community-based organization, or other provider (face-to-face, blended, or online).
  • Going through a boot camp or workshop format training experience.
  • Getting informal advice from friends and colleagues.
  • Learning on the job from a mentor, boss, or colleague.
  • Learning by trial and error, on the job.
  • Setting work goals individually or as a team, establishing plans to achieve the goals, and monitoring progress.
  • Formal training programs and initiatives within the workplace.
  • Volunteering in the community and serving in community groups, boards, and related organizations.
  • Joining an in-person and/or online community of practice that helps stay current or learn about a new area.
  • Experimenting and practicing. Plenty of people learn something new as an avocation or hobby, using evenings, weekends, and off-time to learning something new or refine a skill. In time, it might serve a purpose in paid work or even become the basis for a career shift or venture into business ownership.
  • Playing games and solving puzzles.
  • Hiring a coach or personal trainer (formally or informally, in-person or online).
  • Reading books and online articles.
  • Watching online tutorials and taking short video courses online.
  • Listening to podcasts and audio books.
  • Volunteering during free time to help and learn something new at the same time.
  • Interviewing and observing (formally or informally).
  • Joining a local club and/or meetup.
  • Journaling and writing.
  • Talking through work challenges and opportunities with colleagues over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an evening beverage.
  • Personal research on topics of interest.
  • Attending webinars.
  • Completing projects, overcoming novel challenges, and seeking answers to important questions on the job or in another context.
  • Informal conversations, interactions with, and observation of friends, family members, co-workers, and others in the community.
  • Educational apps and software.
  • Attending conferences (online and/or in-person) and retreats.
  • Professional counseling. This is part of how some cultivate the state of mind or emotional intelligence needed for current for future contexts.
  • Building and leveraging a personal and/or professional network through social media, in-person connections, etc.
  • Drawing insights and ideas from entertainment sources.
  • Self-designing formal and informal learning pathways that leverage multiple of the above.
  • Informally and drawing upon one or more of the above over months and years, without a clear goal or plan.

Without question, this is an incomplete list, but notice how few of these learning opportunities involve a formal classroom. Notice how few include a teacher who is in charge of a group of learners and is coordinating the bulk of the learning process. Also consider how little of this is documented or easily visible. Yet, this is a realistic view of learning today. This is actually how people learn. It is how we gain new knowledge, develop new skills, shape character traits and dispositions over time, and how we build overall competence and confidence for current and future challenges and opportunities.

I think about this often, and it is what leads me to explore questions like the following.

  1. If much of formal education is structured around a teacher coordinating and directing the learning, to what extent is that preparing people for the type of learning that will be commonplace for the rest of life?
  2. What are promising examples of schools that appear to be best equipping people for this sort of lifelong learning?
  3. Given this incredibly diverse array of experiences that contribute to a person’s learning, what does an educational ecosystem look like that helps all of us look beyond diplomas and degrees?
  4. How can we help people tell a more complete story about their learning and connect with other people and organizations that resonate with part of that story?
  5. How might new forms of credentials help to tell this story through the structuring of rich and mine-able data?
  6. More specifically, what are the benefits and limitations of AI and algorithmic solutions to connecting people with other people, organizations, and employment opportunities through rich and ever-growing data sets? To what extent might this help us move beyond credentialism? How might it help is address issues of access and opportunity?
  7. How can we leverage AI, learning analytics, and adaptive learning to amplify the quality of learning that people experience throughout life? What are the exemplars today for truly personalized and adaptive systems that optimize learning for individuals and what will it take for us to reach the next generation of this work?
  8. Since so much of life is and will be focused upon learning/re-learning/un-learning, how do we infuse and elevate the human-ness of these experiences by tapping into incredibly powerful phenomenon like wonder, awe, curiosity, mystery, adventure, experimentation, truth, beauty, and goodness? How might historic and emerging insights about these phenomenon help us think about and design the lifelong learning ecosystem of the future?
  9. Given that people are constantly learning and will need to do so even more as technology (and especially AI) creates massive shifts in types of jobs and the nature of work, what are some of the more promising platforms, environments, and resources that help people grow and learn?
  10. Formal education solutions are clearly inadequate and misfits for the type and nature of lifelong learning that I am describing, at least for the majority of situations. As such, how can we nurture and expand our conversation about education to see it as a much larger and more integrated system, one that we do not inhibit by the narrow constraints, schooling metaphors, educational practice ruts that shape much of how we think about teaching and learning today?

This doesn’t take anything away from the impact that a teacher does or can have on the life of someone. It doesn’t diminish the role of schools. However, if we are looking at learning across the lifetime today, we need to think beyond the teacher/student and schooling constructs. Education is already larger than that. This is no different from recognizing that health and wellness is about so much more than a patient/doctor interaction. These professionals do and will continue to play a valuable role, but limiting many of our conversations about education to these formal contexts is inadequate for the challenges and opportunities of our age. In fact, it has always been inadequate. Formal education has a role to play today and in the future, but it is one of many spokes in the lifelong learning wheel.

This is an exciting time, but it is one that will involve significant shifts in how we think about education and about learning. It will be uncomfortable. It will challenge longstanding traditions. It will call for new ways of thinking about connecting people and employers. It will demand a much broader way of thinking about the lifelong learning enterprise. Yet, if we are diligent and persistent, I am optimistic that we truly can create a better, more hopeful, more humane, and more empowering educational ecosystem.