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Is BigTech About to Take Over Higher Education?

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Whether you are a student, faculty member, or parent, the future of higher education is uncertain. The entire college experience has been condensed into a series of web conferences and online assignments. It is convenient to be able to join a live classroom with a few clicks, or watch recorded sessions later, but what is the true cost of Zoom University compared to four years on a leafy campus?

For many people around the world, college is already too expensive. Every semester students who were successful in their studies are forced to drop out because of cost. The price of college has skyrocketed. For institutions to think they can replicate the university experience with Zoom, then charge the same high prices, is going to be tough.

The problem is that there are no real alternatives to a good college education. Those of us who have had the privilege can appreciate the intrinsic value. It's not just those classes, but those spontaneous interactions, hangouts, friendships, relationships, rewards, challenges, anything and everything in between that makes the college experience so special. How much of that experience can be replicated online, without students being physically close to each other all the time?

The short answer is a lot, but it can’t be done by just cobbling together a bunch of programs that weren’t even designed for higher education in the first place. Most of us have used social media forums like Facebook and LinkedIn, newsfeeds like Twitter or Gab, and online hangouts to make our digital lives a proxy for our physical world. But for education there needs to be more blending of modern technology with proven pedagogical practices. If institutions want to charge the same amount of money for remote learning that they do for in-person, they better add a ton of value to the former offering.

In a short period of time the pandemic left many administrations struggling to figure out a system for online learning, turning it from “nice to have” to “totally essential.” This was not an ideal way to design curriculum and it was not an easy transition for students and instructors. Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have been lifesavers, but they are not the boats you would board for a long journey. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn are tools designed for the consumer internet, without the deeper considerations for engaging online learning environments.

In a recent article, Jeffery R. Young observed, “While many of these hastily-created online experiences are improvisational rather than well-engineered learning programs, the increased use and awareness of the kinds of digital educational tools available could underlie a new culture of more evidence-based teaching.” That means the murky phenomenon of delivering a stellar education could be distilled into more of an exact science when carried out online. An instructor cannot see if a student is actually reading the materials or surfing the net, but software certainly can. If Google or Facebook can show you targeted advertisements, why not use similar targeting technology to showcase verified educational content to our learners? Online platforms provide metrics that can be used to establish KPIs. Teachers and administrators can gather the kinds of rich participation and progression data that is impossible to measure in a classroom.

There is now speculation that top tier universities are going to establish or expand partnerships with tech companies to create these massive programs. Scott Galloway thinks this will have a permanent impact on the university landscape. In a recent New York Magazine interview, he predicts “Hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.”

Elite universities will not gain a monopoly on higher education—they don’t want one. They are elite because they are selective, and offer unique learning experiences. Some of that experience can be scaled online, but there is an obvious limit if they don’t want to compromise quality. MIT already makes almost all of its lecture videos freely available through its MIT OpenCourseware. MIT obviously recognizes that the value of a campus-based education is not only in the content, syllabus, or assignments, but the environment.

The real value of online programs is in the careful blend of technology with proven pedagogical approaches, and a support structure catering to its unique demography of students. At a 1,000-foot view every student looks the same, but when you get close up, everyone is unique depending on their background, needs, and aspirations.

The future is not going to be winner take all.

The future is going to be in the hands of institutions that can create the best online offerings by combining available tech and customizing it to fit the needs of the individual student -- and maybe sweeten the deal by eliminating some of the astronomical cost.

Some universities will inevitably fall, but it will not be because they were eclipsed by ravenous elite colleges expanding their digital footprint. They will disappear because they did not embrace this new approach, they will fail because they continued to increase cost without increasing value through modernization and inclusivity.

People tend to think they will either be on a picturesque campus enjoying the traditional collegiate experience, or they will learn remotely, but it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Realistically, a hybrid model is the future of higher education, and much of this innovation is not happening exclusively at tier-one schools. For tier-two and tier-three colleges, inclusivity is a driving force behind the way they design curriculum. They want to get part-time students and commuter students along with full timers. This means they have been using hybrid solutions long before COVID came along, because it helps them enroll a student body from a more diverse set of backgrounds.

Moving forward, colleges need to focus on building the right kinds of offerings for the students of the future. Here is some advice for institutions looking to adopt tech solutions:

  1. When it comes to the implementation, it is critical to establish a means of measuring impact. It is very easy to falsify progress by simply adding more tools, but those tools are totally ineffective if the student population does not make use of them, and it happens more often than not. The preference of the student is more important than the preference of the administrator.

  2. Invest in training and development. Great tech doesn’t always reach its full potential. Instructors are used to doing things a certain way, and it can be difficult to get them to adopt new methods, especially if they are not properly trained. It is not just about understanding the features and functionality—users need to believe that tech can work. There needs to be a comprehensive training program that focuses not just on the functionality, but on the goals.

  3. Think about the future of your institution as a network of partners, building an online environment that can teach a number of skills. Find vendors who are not just providing software, but solutions. It shouldn’t be about a single sale or an annual contract, but instead, about working in collaboration with that vendor to achieve a better future for your students. Align with these partners for the long term.

The future of education is going to be decidedly non-elitist, and hopefully more affordable. As institutions work to adopt hybrid models of teaching, more students can earn customized educations that fit their needs. This tailoring will level playing fields and give us smarter populations who can tackle the problems of the future, democratizing knowledge in the process.


Shaunak Roy is founder and CEO of Yellowdig, a digital platform for active, perpetual learning allowing collaborative and immersive learning to happen. Write to:

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