The Rise (and Reign?) of Outsider Higher Education

You might know outsider art, but what about outsider higher education? This is not new, but it is growing quickly in the fertile soil of the connected age.We are now decades into a growing and increasingly accepted form of higher education that functions largely separate from established academia. I call it outsider higher education. Those who create and lead it do not necessarily consider what they are doing to be higher education (although some do). At the same time, the many affordances of life in a connected age are extending the influence and expanding the impact of these forms of higher education.

Outsider art, as people explain it to me, is a term used to represent art created by those who are outside of the broader art community. While some use the term in reference to any self-taught artist, others argue that such a broad use is simply self-taught art, and that outsider art is something distinct. It is art created separate from the standard influences in art. One example might be a person in a mental health facility with no formal training in art who begins to express ideas and experiment through painting, drawing, or sculpting. Some outsider artists see their work as art and even seek to make a living on the basis of this work. Others are so separate from the art community and the cultural discourse about art that they do not even identify what they are doing as art.

While the first references to outsider art emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, something began to emerge over time. Outsider art started to be talked about within it the art community. Events like New York’s Outsider Art Fair started in the early 1990s and continues today. Academic journals began that focus upon the study of outsider art (See Elsewhere: The International Journal of Self-Taught and Outsider Art and RawVision). Outsider art started appearing in studios, even with dedicated exhibits. A market for purchasing and collecting outsider art also developed. As such, outsider art became part of the larger art community.

While far from a perfect comparison, something similar is happening in higher education, hence my calling it outsider higher education. I am referring to a variety of expressions. Consider the following four.


Seth Godin is a marketing expert, entrepreneur, and author. He is also the founder the the altMBA, a learning experience that does not confer a degree, but offers knowledge and skill development that one might often seek from a formal MBA.


Howard Rheingold is an author, writer, and thought-leader about the implications of the modern connected world. While he has lectured at Stanford and UC Berkeley, he is also the founder and sold teacher at RheingoldU, a set of online courses that he leads/facilitates. In fact, I took his Literacy of Cooperation course several years ago.

Draper University

Draper University, founded by the Silicon Valley Tim Draper, does not offer formal degrees. What it offers is a real-world, substantive higher education learning experience that equips people to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Singularity University

Singularity University’s “mission is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It does not offer formal degrees or credentials either, but like Draper, it draws from world class talent to create a robust learning community.

None of these are recognized higher education institution by the US Department of Education. None of them are regionally accredited. None of them have many trappings of the traditional University experience. Yet, all of them offer higher education learning experiences. They are not bound by many regulations.

At the same time, many go to one of these after experiences after a more traditional college degree. Most people see these as supplements and not replacements for what you might get from an traditional University. Others see them as viable alternatives to gaining knowledge and skill that they might have otherwise sought through a University course or degree.

I expect that, just as outsider art eventually became a part of the larger art community, the same think is already happening with outsider higher education, and this will expand. Look at the list of “faculty” at Draper University and you will see an impressive list, one that includes entrepreneurs and scholars from places like Stanford University. Also consider that Draper has partnerships with both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. This is one example of where the outsiders and insiders are mixing, just as the founders of these others have plenty of connections to the insider world of higher education.

These are only four examples. There are countless others. The business of creating learning communities, mentoring and coaching, seminars and workshops, and the like is not new, but it is growing, with new ones appearing all the time. In fact, if you look back on my blog, as others talked about how they expect to seek many higher education institutions close, I disagreed, contending that we will indeed see a significant growth in the number of higher education providers. What people might not have understood is that I extended my definition of higher education far beyond accredited and degree-granting institutions. While I did not call it that at the time, my response represented an emerging way of looking at what is happening, what I am now giving the game of outsider higher education.