Guest Editorial: The coming wave

If you had two products of comparable quality and one cost $120,000 and the other $20,000, the choice between the two would be simple. If the $20,000 option were considerably better, then not only would the choice be easy, but the $120,000 option would cease to exist.
To a degree, that describes the horns of the dilemma to be encountered by higher education. No matter how they respond, the cost of a college education and the explosion in digital learning models will revamp the way the next generation approaches education.
It’s happening now. Open University in the United Kingdom is a “distance learning” and research university that has an enrollment of 250,000 students. It has also been ranked as among the country’s top 10 schools in student satisfaction. Students can take courses from anywhere and it’s even accredited here in the United States.
Coursera is a for-profit educational company that is “committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it.” It has attracted substantial venture capital and has created partnerships with the likes of Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.
Udacity is a university established by Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun, which has the stated goal of “democratizing education.” His venture began after attracting 160,000 students worldwide to his online course, artificial intelligence. He hopes to attract 500,000 students to his growing venture. 
And then, there is edX, the not-for-profit set up by MIT and Harvard. The schools have kicked in $30 million apiece and intend to extend their educational brands across the globe. They will offer “certificates of mastery” for those who can demonstrate their knowledge of the material covered. 
These efforts are genuine and they are part of an educational wave that is not as far from shore as most college and university educators would like. The question is not whether it will hit, but how our colleges and universities can react to either minimize the disruption or to remake their own images to take advantage of what’s coming.
That prospect, of course, invites immediate rebuke from the faculty of most colleges and universities. They continue to believe their classrooms are the preferred means of educating our students. They cannot accept the thought that college life will be anything other than what it has been for centuries.
What they don’t accept is that what is important to them (faculty and alums) isn’t yet known by those whose post-high school years are a decade away.
Great parties and a chance to meet lots of friends? They will have to take your word for it.
Large lecture halls filled with hundreds of students as the preferred way to learn? Not as appealing as you might think.
Less-than-stellar professor, or teacher’s assistant? And they would pay big bucks for this, why?
Piles of debt? Not a good start in life.
Our higher education establishment has lasted this long because society attaches such value to the end product, a college education. But if those who do the employing start accepting mastery certificates as the proof they need that the potential employee has the necessary skills, then the model begins to change. 
That’s the employers’ end.
Tomorrow’s students are also savvier than most would credit them. They are already connected to a world that is much wider and deeper than what their parents experienced. If they had to choose between a course taught at UVM, in a lecture hall, by a competent but unknown professor and an online course taught by a Stanford professor of considerable renown, most would pick the online course. If it were less costly, that would just make them all the happier. (And their parents.)
And what of the college experience?
Those are our memories, not theirs.
Think about this. Part of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program requires that high school students have the option to take as many as 60 college credits before they enter high school. If they also have the option of taking their requisite requirements to graduate online — at reputable colleges and universities — then they not only will have gained time, as much as two years, but will have saved a pile of money.
That time and money can be used in a variety of ways. They could use it to further their education. They could join the employment rolls sooner, making retirement more affordable. They could use it to travel, or most anything they would like.
For a state like Vermont, this is an essential discussion. The higher education community is among our largest and its economic power is considerable. Any disruption will send large waves outward. 
We’re planning for this, how?
by Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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