The Way of the Future: Creative Destruction in Higher Education

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

You thought I was crazy back in 2009 when I predicted that we would see free, high quality university training made available online. I thought I might be crazy too, and for the record it hasn’t happened (quite) yet.

Inspired by Khan Academy, two Stanford professors however just put a graduate level Computer Science course online, complete with reading assignments, tests and a “Certificate of Completion.” Wired Magazine reports that a mere 200,000 students from around the world took the course.

The good professors decided to form a company, called Udasity, to pursue online higher education. Money quote from the article:

He’s thinking big now. He imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them. Thrun just has to plot the right course.

Personally I don’t believe there will only be 10 institutions delivering higher education in 2062. I think the demand for in-person instruction will be considerably stronger than that. Having just visited the Stanford campus a few weeks ago, I dare to wager that there will always be a Stanford.

I do however believe that by 2062 we will see far fewer universities than we have today. The technology exists to put high quality undergraduate and graduate level courses online and make them available for free or next to free. Stanford and MIT have been moving in this direction, and if they don’t close the deal eventually someone else will do so.

Universities have been increasing their costs at a rate exceeding health care inflation for decades. The pink cloud of academic euphoria is going to meet the cold howling wind of creative destruction, and that includes the current stock of for-profit online providers. Once Stanford or MIT or Oxford starts putting degree programs online for little to no cost to the student, many dominoes will begin to fall.

Far more important than the incumbent interests of the status-quo is the remarkable benefit that this trend with have for human progress. Making world-class graduate level training available to subsistence farmers in Bangladesh will change the world for the better, regardless of whether it forces changes in business models for online companies and/or puts painfully mediocre and expensive universities out of business.

The Amazon first mover advantage for a serious brand name to move into the free-for-user higher education space with a Google funding model is out there, waiting for someone to seize it and make history. Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

19 Responses to The Way of the Future: Creative Destruction in Higher Education

  1. allen says:

    Kind of makes me wonder who’s going to supply the excuses for smugness the high-priced universities are currently serving up as part of their stock in trade.

    And I’m not being sarcastic.

    • Greg Forster says:

      The high-priced universities will probably continue to manufacture that particular product in-house, to harness the efficiency gains of vertical integration. 🙂

      • allen says:

        Yeah, I suppose. In a world filled with $10 digital watches there’s a market for a $80,000 Tag Heuer Monaco V4.

  2. Gisele Huff says:

    The 21st century version of “creative destruction” is “disruptive innovation” as coined by Clayton Christensen. It is happening just as Jay describes and will only accelerate in the next few years. It is actually the answer to the democratization of education which, in the Western tradition, was the almost exclusive enclave of the elites for centuries. Indeed, Stanford will always exist and so will the Great Books as well as their equivalents in China, India, etc. But technology will make knowledge accessible to everybody across the globe without dumbing learning down and with allowing individuals to learn “any time, any place, any path, any pace.”

  3. Alsadius says:

    Another one you may want to know about, also primarily from Stanford(though Berkeley and UMichigan are also involved) –

    It’s free, and they’re offering eight courses now, with more coming. I’m taking the Algorithms class at the moment, and it’s good stuff.

  4. Interestingly, Jonas Dreher’s new book Imagine identifies key components of neuroscience that validate the superiority of human contact in the classroom or conference room. For example, since the invention of Skye, attendance at business conferences within companies has actually gone up. The human contact is absolutely necessary – which is why Yale online would not produce the same quality of education that Yale on campus would.

    While innovations like Khan Academy are certainly valuable for the exposure and nuts and bolts learning they can provide, they cannot, will not, and should not ever be expected to replace the university classroom. If we’ve learned nothing in the past twenty years, it’s that Putnam’s Bowling Alone exposed a real danger in the shift to an electronic culture.

    • allen says:

      You state two premises –
      A) “the superiority of human contact in the classroom”
      B) “human contact is absolutely necessary”

      Since they’re mutually exclusive, superiority not precluding distance learning as opposed to “absolutely” which does preclude distance learning, which is it?

      The answer’s obvious in the demonstration experiment of Khan Academy and its like so either you’re misstating Mr. Dreher’s work or Mr. Dreher is wrong.

      What I find interesting is that, as much as stalwart defenders of the educational status quo such as yourself are upset by the emergence and success of Khan Academy and its like, there seems to be no move afoot to try to burden the phenomenon with regulation.

      I don’t think that’s an oversight because as common a reaction as it is to attempt to coerce what can’t be gotten by free trade or persuasion among those occupying the political left coercion’s a practically a reflex.

      So, why no attempt to rally forces in favor of regulation of on-line learning resources?

  5. Matthew Ladner says:


    Whether in person Stanford is superior to virtual Stanford is only relevant to the tiny slice of humanity who actually have to choose whether to attend Stanford in person or not. For them, I suspect that many will see things as you do, and thus there will always be a Stanford.

    Whether virtual Stanford is better than attending, say, Texas A&M or Coastal Carolina is yet a different question. Whether it beats the living daylights out of subsistence farming in Laos another question still.

  6. While you see my comments as some militant defense of the status quo, that view is not accurate. In my opinion, education reform/policy should be grounded in the theory of whatever works. I’m no more opposed to Khan Academy or Sebastian Thrun’s online Stanford course than you are. I simply challenge the notion of replacing one with the other. The value of human contact and the university classroom should not be dismissed, and public education should not be derailed. Whatever works. Just keep in mind that the traditional form is sound and effective.

    • allen says:

      Oh sure my view of your comments is accurate although given the human capacity for rationalization it’s not at all surprising you don’t see yourself as militantly opposed to any departure from the orthodoxy of the district-based public education system.

      Not my problem.

      My problem is trying to develop an explanation for the overall failure of public education that doesn’t preclude the occasional point of light. Of trying to understand why the few successful schools and the few truly outstanding teachers excite not admiration, emulation or interest within the public education system. Those, along with connected questions and phenomena, are the problem I’ve set for myself to explain.

      As for “whatever works”, in your case that’s inevitably within the framework of the district-based public education system which, despite your claim, doesn’t work, never did, can’t be made to work, isn’t sound or effective and will come to be seen as a mistake of titantic proportions once the centrality of parental choice is re-established.

  7. You’re so crass, Allen.

    • allen says:

      “without refinement, delicacy, or sensitivity; gross; obtuse; stupid: crass commercialism; a crass misrepresentation of the facts”.

      Hmmm. Nope although I do scratch where it itches and occasionally use language appropriate to the occasion which sometimes results in indecorousness. Still, without refinement, delicacy or sensitivity? Incorrect and obviously so.

  8. mmazenko says:

    Allen, I’ll say this:

    You have a lot of knowledge and insight into the many issues discussed on these blogs. And, over the years, I must say I have learned from you, and I’ve benefited from the way you’ve challenged my ideas and proposed ideas for change and progress.

    However, I just don’t understand why it must come with such contempt and bitterness. In the blogosphere, people like Jay, Matt Ladner, Greg Forster, Joanne, Darren, Mark Roulo, and others disagree while generally maintaining civility and a spirit of Socratic questioning. It’s really quite enlightening. That’s the purpose of these forums – and it’s why differing opinions meet here.

    Only rarely is it delivered with angry cynicism. I don’t know what experiences you had with public education that generates such animosity, but I hope our discussions can soften it in some way.

  9. allen says:

    Well played Micheal.

    You’ve moved the question at issue from the utility and value of on-line learning resources, and thus your defense of the status quo, to my attitude towards those who’d defend the public education system and it’s institutional ripples. If you were as open to critiques of the current system as you claim you might be willing to confront your preference for a discussion of my shortcomings over issues actually relevant to the public education system.

    For instance, there’s the question of why the public education system’s been so resistant to the adoption of technological solutions. Khan Academy and it’s like are the proximate objects of the discussion but they’re hardly the only technological innovation to have educational utility. Far from it.

    As I’ve mentioned before, the history of public education wouldn’t be inaccurately portrayed as a history of avoiding technological improvements in the education process. While telegraph, telephone, movies, talking movies, television, computers and the Internet have remade society the public education system, were it’s proponents and dependents left to their preferences, would still be at a level of technological sophistication that would allow Socrates to step into a classroom and seamlessly take over the lesson. Provided the union didn’t object and the administration were certain there wouldn’t be any downside.

    That racalcitrance might be defensible were it not for the avid adoption of ideas that produce no educational benefit.

    What I’ve taken to refering to as edu-crap, the endless stream of valueless fads that emerge from schools of education, proves conclusively that the public education system is motivated by contentless novelty, not by substantive change. So your contention that your concerns are grounded in whatever works are undone by the actions of the institution you seek to defend.

    If you’re interested “what works” the public education system isn’t. You might want to pay some attention to that fact rather then my personal deficiencies. Between the two I know which one I think to be the more important issue.

  10. Matthew Ladner says:

    In the interests of promoting civility, I wish to apologize to the good people of Coastal Carolina for writing something that might be interpreted as equating their institution to Texas A&M.

    • allen says:

      Yeah, civility is important. As is levity. And levitation for that matter. But where do we go from here?

      I don’t mean where do we go from here in this conversation but where do we, the universal “we”, go from here in terms of a world which is rapidly creating substantive, on-line education resources?

      What’s the next, logical step in which previously diffuse, inaccessible for various reasons, disparate, incomparable education resources are starting to crowd the on-line landscape?

      Will order emerge from this disorganized, nascent phenomenon or will order have to be imposed?

      Will imposed order preclude or delay a superior, emergent order or is it possible to impose order that hurries the emergent order?

      Who are the winners and losers in an on-line education future and do the future’s winners have the resources to wrench that future away from today’s losers?

      If order is to emerge in this chaotic educational landscape who are the stakeholders that will dictate the shape of that order? How much, or little, uniformity will this emerging, or imposed, order demand of the participants?

      What unanticipated opportunities and tropes will emerge from this new ordering? I know they’re unanticipated so trying to anticipate them is tough but let’s just go with it. It might be fun.

      The future’s on it’s way and whether we’re standing on the tracks or have a ticket to ride gripped in our grimy paws is something we ought to try to determine ahead of the train’s scheduled arrival.

  11. This is such an interesting topic. The concept of free, high-quality, university level education being offered online is fantastic. I’ll be interested to see how programs like this evolve over time… could the Internet change higher education the way it did the music industry?

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