But this kind of growth, like that associated with Coursera, is “ faster than Facebook,” specifically in terms of having a user growth rate greater than 2,000%. That’s growth from roughly 160,000 learners at one university in 2011 to 35,000,000 learners at 570 universities and twelve providers in 2015.
— OnlineCourseReport, State of the MOOC 2016
There’s a saying that Edtech is the new Fintech. It’s easy to see why: despite decades of people pushing for e-learning models, education has barely moved outside its Industrial Revolution roots. The majority of the world still sits in rows before a teacher and a whiteboard. The majority of students jump over pointless educational hurdles to learn a subject, fork over large sums of money, take notes, and fall asleep in class.*
The numbers, though, say this is changing. The past few years have seen the incredible rise of the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) model. Systems like Coursera, Udacity, and edX are becoming incredibly popular: Coursera alone, as of the time of writing, has users from over 200 countries — over 22 million registered users, 1 million of them from China, 1.7 million of them from India. Despite the high drop-off rate you get with online courses, those numbers are far too large to be ignored.
This is largely thanks to respected US universities (like Georgia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford) and tech recruiters throwing their weight behind specialized courses that are more industry-relevant.**
How Does This Play Out?
Very soon, MOOCs will start offering bachelor’s degrees, kicking off a whole domino effect of economic repercussions for international students and campuses.
A sizeable chunk of the education market involves international students paying for a British, US, or Aussie degree. According to trade.gov, the US plays host to almost a million foreign students now; and for Australia, Deloitte estimated education exports to be an $18.8 billion dollar market — making it Australia’s third largest export.
Involved in this are the costs of paying a middleman ‘offshore campus’ for tuition; migration; and money flowing from, say, India to the Australia, in the case of students who end up living there for a while.
Coursera already plays host to Masters degrees from the University of Illinois, and Udacity’s Nanodegree and edX’s Micromasters are making waves; the platforms have certainly proved capable of hosting a degree-level education.
Once recognized bachelor degrees appear online, the whole education model changes. After all, the bach degree is the basic unit of a college education; most people need one, and it’s the keystone that unlocks both careers and further education.
What happens? Initially, I believe there’ll be an upswing in new students — people signing up who could not otherwise attend a brick-and-mortar university — but over time, the digital model will cannibalize the older one. After all, if the same qualification is made available online, without all the hassle of migration, and without the need for a middleman other than the MOOC platform, that money starts flowing away from the current path and directly into Coursera and the universities.
What Does This Mean for Universities?
The cost of an affordable education will drop rapidly, and many — though not all — universities will die.
We know what the Internet does to things — the economies of scale make the overheads of building space, teacher:student ratios, and the actual brick-and-mortar of a university largely redundant. It’s Amazon vs Walmart all over again, and all it takes is one institute pricing their tuition a little bit cheaper to set off a race to the bottom.
But again, Amazon hasn’t killed Walmart; it’s killed the smaller players, but not the giants. In the same way, I think the Ivy League — where people gain not just an education, but also powerful connections that make their careers — will survive; if anything, it’ll become an even more exclusive experience.
What happens? The smaller universities, the bit players, will likely feel the squeeze, while the large universities will be able to sell their online education at even more competitive prices to destroy the bottom of the market.
What About Degrees?
The degree becomes less valuable as a unit of education; the course becomes more valuable.
The beauty of breaking down education into topical chunks is that we students now have complete control over what we learn. There’s nothing to stop you from, say, taking both literature and robotics (I took Greek myth, cryptography, and data science).
In this context, we’ll probably, and very slowly, shift to a social acceptance model where a series of good-sized courses strung together will be as much use to a career as a single degree.
*A friend of mine even pointed out that the majority of our schools could even serve as prisons: they have the same cell-based architectures and are designed to cram as many entrants into a space as possible.
**I’m a huge proponent of this system, for the record: thanks to Coursera, I’ve been able to teach myself data science, statistics, Greek and Roman mythology, and cryptography basics — niche skillsets that aren’t taught everywhere and would normally require me to migrate to learn.
The Online Course Report, State of the MOOC 2016
Eudemic: The State of the Education Industry in 2015 (note: links to subject matter in here. The URL appears misleading — 7 trillion is an absurdly large figure)
Ed Tech trends to watch in 2017