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"Someone is going to write the software that eats higher education"

Kevin Carey, director of the New America Foundation’s education policy program and previously policy director at Education Sector, has actively engaged in the debates around the potential of technology to disrupt higher education for some time, largely on the pro-disruption side. (See, for example, my previous blog post on his work as co-editor of Reinventing Higher Education, in which he also wrote the chapter, “The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed.”) In a recent article for Washington Monthly, “The Siege of Academe,” and an accompanying blog post expanding on its themes, Carey reviews the lessons he learned in exploring Silicon Valley’s rapidly growing interest and investment in technology solutions for higher education. He notes that some of those solutions are intended to make traditional higher education work better, but many more reflect a view that traditional higher education is a “huge system” which should be “swept away and replaced by something better.”

Carey’s major lesson learned concerns the degree to which widely available broadband and cloud services continue to drive down the cost of starting information- and Internet-based businesses to the point that small investments in potentially transformative “platform” applications (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) can produce industry-changing or industry-creating results. He then explores the efforts of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, to the tune of $400 million last year alone, to apply that lesson to higher education. He cites the Minerva Project and Udemy as examples of companies that might dramatically change the availability and affordability of Ivy League-level higher education (Minerva) and higher education in general (Udemy). He then points to the launch of massively open online course (MOOC) projects such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity as elite higher education’s response to the perceived threat of technology-based disruption: “In less than a year, online higher education has gone from the province of downmarket for-profit colleges to being embraced by the most famous universities in the world.” In the end, Carey acknowledges that we probably don’t yet know who the dominant player or players in higher education’s disrupted future will be, but he displays great confidence that such a future is coming:

Perhaps Udemy’s democratic nature will give it a leg up in the coming war to build the dominant higher education platform. Maybe the three titans of Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT will propel edX to victory, or maybe the user experience expertise and facility with the economics of Silicon Valley will help Udacity carry the day. Coursera’s marriage of world-class brands with valley know-how seems like a formidable combination. Pearson, the British textbook giant, is working to build a platform of its own. There is a great deal of money and power at stake now. We may not know who and we may not know when, but someone is going to write the software that eats higher education.


To be fair, Carey posits a longer time horizon, and possibly a more realistic scenario, for the disruption of traditional higher education than many of similar mind:

Instead of trying to directly challenge American colleges—a daunting proposition, given the political power and public subsidies they possess—the new breed of tech start-ups will likely start by working in the unregulated private sector, where they’ll build what amounts to a parallel higher education universe. . . . At a certain point, probably before this decade is out, that parallel universe will reach a point of sophistication and credibility where the degrees—or whatever new word is invented to mean “evidence of your skills and knowledge”—it grants are taken seriously by employers.

However, I think Carey’s perspective, at least as represented in this article and related blog post, reflects a significant blindspot, and one which seems endemic to the “disrupt higher education” camp. Carey offers an excellent overview of the technology and private sector forces driving a great deal of innovation in technology-based applications and services for higher education. His comment about online higher education having been “the province of downmarket for-profit colleges” until the recent rise of the MOOCs, though, betrays a lack of understanding about the extent to which traditional colleges and universities have led the development and evolution of online learning, as well as of the extent to which they have evolved as a result themselves.

Certainly, to adapt the William Gibson quote, the e-learning future has not been evenly distributed across the traditional higher education landscape—the bell curve applies, and the great mass of colleges and universities could benefit in very substantial ways from rethinking and redesigning core functions, both academic and administrative, based on what technology has to offer. EDUCAUSE Vice President Greg Jackson addresses this point well in his white paper, “IT-Based Transformation in Higher Education: Possibilities and Prospects.”

But much of the online learning landscape has been and remains driven by the traditional, nonprofit higher education sector, including innovative hybrid programs and fully online institutions that derived from established colleges, universities, and systems. Those innovations have enabled the variety of institutions that now comprise the traditional sector to deliver an even wider variety of learning opportunities to a more diverse array of student populations than ever before, and in ways that allow the students to tailor their learning experience to their needs.

Critics of the traditional higher education sector do have a point—a great many colleges and universities nationwide has not yet modified their core processes to capture the benefits of technology to reduce costs, increase flexibility and engagement, improve college completion, and so forth. As Jackson notes in his paper, those challenges remain; however, as his points imply, the innovation that has already taken place and the new ways colleges and universities have already generated for reaching and serving existing and new student populations illustrate the opportunities that a diverse array of higher education business models offers.

And this may be Jackson’s key point that should cause the “disrupt higher ed” vanguard to pause and reflect—our society tends to envision research universities when it thinks “higher education,” but our higher education landscape has long featured a broad range of institutional types and missions. Technology has enabled new models to arise—both hybrid and fully online—and it should drive adaptation and improvement in existing institutional models as well. Our nation’s higher education needs demand bending the cost curve, increasing retention and completion, and improving learning outcomes. But many of the calls that revolution is right around the corner overlook the evolution that has been taking place in higher education for years and that continues to take place to this day. And with something as important and complex as our nation’s higher education ecosystem, evolution may both serve us better and be more realistic. 


Software and higher ed go hand and hand.  Software is necessary because of the change with technology.  Technology is usueful and the use of new ideas shows the sofware is needed in order to keep up with the times of the new student today.

Software and technologies nowadays can be very useful because it delivers an even wider variety of learning opportunities to a more diverse array of student populations than ever before, and somehow allow the students to tailor their learning experience to their needs.