Higher education must disrupt itself or be disrupted

I read a nice piece in The Globe and Mail this morning (courtesy of @Ronald Beach), in which the author, Margaret Wente, stridently puts forward the case for flexible delivery of higher education. In We’re ripe for a great disruption in higher education, she argues that:

The digital revolution will make higher education better, cheaper, more accessible, more engaging and far more customized than anything that exists today. It’ll also turn our current institutions upside down.

Citing the examples of MITX and WGU, and perhaps emboldened by Clayton Christensen’s most recent work, The Innovative University, Ms Wente certainly rattles the cages of some of the 180+ individuals commenting on her article within the first 24 hours. This, no doubt, will please her greatly, as I suspect this is precisely what she set out to do.

It is, indeed, very refreshing to read material like this in the mainstream media, and see it presented so unapologetically. It does require, however, one important qualifier, namely that university campuses are not about to be sold off to become parking lots for hypermarkets … or at least not all of them.

There will always be a demand for a campus experience for those that want it and, for this reason, the ‘sandstone’ universities will always stay in business. This, I’m sure, is a point many of the dissenting commenters would agree upon. For many students, though, be it learning style or lifestyle, the on-campus, face-to-face option makes no sense at all. For some it is just plain anachronistic (too ‘medieval’, to quote Wente), and for others it might be out of their reach for socioeconomic or demographic reasons.

In summary, the key message in this article for universities is that, unless you are in the premium campus experience business, it’s probably time for a rethink. In an economically challenged and increasingly digital world, high priced on-campus education at second tier institutions will become a lot more difficult to sell.