The death or rebirth of universities?

2012 the phenomenon Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, developed from an experimental phase to becoming well established globally. “College may never be the same” was the title of an article in USA Today, describing the potentially disruptive nature of MOOCs. The “may” in the title seems to become more of a “will” as time goes by. The article, “Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, Transform Higher Education and Science” in Scientific American describes the development and the impressive growth, in terms of students enrolled, number of respected universities on the main platforms Coursera and edX, as well as the number of courses given.

Ny bild (26).pngWhat makes MOOCs disruptive in nature is the low incremental cost to add one more student compared to an on-campus course. There is almost no upper limit regarding how many that can take the same course simultaneously, resulting in an overall low cost per student. This in itself would be enough to disrupt the present higher education industry. However, MOOCs also hold the potential to result in a number of additional benefits. They open up for lifelong learning, the barrier for those that already have a degree, those that have a job and feel too old to go back to university are now gone. This is also confirmed by the age distribution seen for the in initial MOOCs so far. In addition, MOOCs can be taken from wherever you are in the world as long as you have an Internet connection and a computer. As recognized in the two above mentioned articles examination is still to be sorted out and will not be free, but the cost for the student will anyhow be a fraction compared to an ordinary education.

Following standard industry and market logic, extreme low cost competition will significantly increase volume but also decrease the overall price level forcing incumbents to act. This development will most likely drive consolidation and a shake out. We may get a situation where the diversity of education may be depleted. Giant global education groups may form.  Another effect of global reach may be early talent scouting, eventually concentrating the best brains in the world to a few locations leaving smaller universities with limited possibilities to keep and attract talent.

“The industry has operated more or less along the same business model and even the same technology for hundreds of years,” says John Nelson, managing director of Moody’s Higher Education, in the USA Today article. “MOOCS represent a rapidly developing and emerging change and that is very, very rare.” This dramatic change is indeed rare and will have a huge impact, not only on the present higher education industry, but also in terms of lifelong learning, educating developing countries, talent management and recruitment, globalization of education and research.


6 responses to “The death or rebirth of universities?

  1. I believe that the market for higher education is not that different in 20 years than today, in regards to Universities being the mayor platform. Even though the industry as a whole is questioned regarding value of the education and low pace change in contrast to technological development, I believe there are multiple factors contributing to the foothold of Universities delivering higher education.

    There are multiple mega trends that speak in the behalf of MOOCs potential success, both from an educational perspective, and an economical. It open up the opportunities for technological implementation that allows the educator:student ratio to decline and allow the best of the best teach waste amount of students without extra work for the educator, whilst lowering the cost of education per student. This would create opportunities for a more balance educational landscape where talent and will are key factors for achieving educational success, rather than economics and demographics.

    There are however multiple factors that could make the change process sluggish. First off all education is in a sense meant to be a quality control factor in application of jobs. Therefore the MOOCs has to gain respect on an industrial level, and generate possibilities for job application after the studies. Today the universities serve just that quality control factor, as some universities are more prestigious than others. Just as well many universities today offer a natural transition into industries by creating forums for interaction between students and potential future hires. In addition to that university may also serve as a community for the students. All in all this creates additional value for students, than just studying for a degree.

    I expect universities to face the treats of MOOCs both by; looking at mega trends possible to integrate into the education as it is today, especially regarding technology and individualization; but also by playing with their strong cards, creation of additional value trough industrial contacts, quality assurance, and building of a community.

    In both scenarios there is a greater need for programmers, as it enable the interaction between technology and education. But in the case of MOOCs, the greater number of students per educator will put demand on administrative positions. One could not expect that a professor could handle contact with potentially thousand of students that attend the courses. However in financial terms the roll of administration is greatly inferior to the programmers. All in all I see that programmers will have a great role in the education of tomorrow.


  2. I believe this trend will continue to develop for the foreseeable future. I don’t think however that the industry will immediately develop into an only-by-distance education where the imprtance of teachers and other educators are totally diminished. There will always be a certain need for those roles in the education industry, but in terms of lectureres I think that only the best within each field will record and hold lectures resulting in less diversity in the teaching material. On the contrary though, people able to answer questions and give more hands-on tutorials will certainly be useful and demanded by the institutions and students. The pros of this scenario is of course the lower cost which will lead to more people being educated. Other positives is that all student will more or less be taught by the best and most recongnized lecturers in each topic. However, there a few cons as well; one shouldn’t underestimate the value of participating in a learning society, where contacts are being made, motivation and inspiration might come from all sorts of different entities and of course the possibility to get useful help in understanding from classmates etc. In order for the universities to capture the positives and mitigate the negatives it will be very important that the embrace this development and put in place measures that will ensure the best possible education for their students. Such measures could be for instance to set up communication systems and/or forums where the students can easily and quickly communicate with their peers or educators, give and receive feedback and access to software and so on needed in their curriculum. Regarding the business models for the industry, it will depend to a large extent of how the university receives funding in the first place. In the US, new business models will obivously be developed in order to properly secure covering (although diminishing) costs. However, in Europe, where universities are largely funded by the government, the new situation for industry will probably be more about the allocation of funding. Questions of where funding is needed compared to today rather than how to receive proper funding will be more important. The purpose of developing the industry further should not only be about lowering cost, but to ensure a quality education for as many as possible in order to sufficiently deal with the issues of tomorrow. With the current estimate on number of university students worldwide being 150 million, these issues will be of great importance if the number of students will almost double (260+ million students) as some sources indicate (


  3. It is hard not to be mesmerised by the allure of making education more accessible. The article, ”College may never be the same” in USA Today, among other things, describe the opportunities that MOOCs are creating in developing countries. One obvious key trend enabling MOOCs, especially in these countries, are growing communication networks. As the world becomes more connected, people with otherwise limited prospects and possibilities will have the opportunity to receive a high level education.

    The article, ”Who’s benefiting from MOOCs, and Why” in Harvard Business Review states that people from developing countries more frequently report benefits from taking MOOCs then people from developed countries where a more functioning educational system is in place. Further, the article reports that only a small percentage of the 25 million people enrolled in MOOCs actually complete courses and of those people 60% come from developing countries. This showcases that even though interest in MOOCs is high only a small group of people, as of now, value the courses enough to actually finish them. Most likely this group of people have little or no other possibilities to educate themselves on a higher level resorting to the only available option. Perhaps most importantly, the overall high valuation of MOOCs in developing countries by students indicates that employers also value this new educational system.

    Globally, whether or not MOOCs will have an overall disruptive effect on higher education essentially depends on how employers will value this new educational system. As stated in the article ”Collage my never be the same” there are issues concerning quality control and examination practices. However these are issues present when viewing merit from a traditional educational paradigm. Perhaps we will see new trends in qualification and merit where companies themselves do qualification testing as a part of the recruitment process leaving traditional degrees and diplomas behind.


  4. I believe that we will look at education in a different way in the future as a result to the megatrends we see today. Like in the article “College may never be the same” I believe that MOOCs will never be able to replace universities, but I still think they will have an important roll in the creation of future education.

    Today we see a world that is changing faster, growing need for specialized workforce and an increasing living standard. It’s for example more common that people change career late in life. Earlier you got an education and then worked in this field for the rest of your productive years. A university degree open up a lot of possibilities and now it’s not uncommon that people work within an area not directly connected to their university program. The university degree works as a certificate that proves that you can learn new things. I think universities still will have this role in 20 years. However, I think that MOOCs will be important for people that want to change career and need additional knowledge. Another factor is that in 20 years the internet-access will have grown making it possible for more people using MOOCs in developing countries.

    A problem sometimes facing higher education is the gap between industry and the academy. Students often expresses that they learn a concept for problem solving at the university but that they learn the actual task at work. I think it would be interesting if the industry were more interactive in the education of students. I see an opportunity where MOOCs could make it possible for a company customize education required for a position.

    In conclusion, even though MOOCs can replace a lecture I still think that there is a value in the interaction between people that university provides. I think the most likely scenario is that in 20 years universities still will exist more or less in the way they do today but with MOOCs integrated in the education. The big difference will be that people that otherwise wouldn’t go to universities will use MOOCs. I thus agree with the previous mentioned article that MOOCs shouldn’t be viewed as a perfect substitute for traditional higher education, it should rather be viewed as a complement that makes higher education accessible for more people.


  5. It is not entirely impossible to envision a scenario where MOOC will dominate over college education globally, if we consider the fact that a large portion of the human population don’t even have access to schools. There are almost as many telephone subscriptions around the world as there are people, which means that online technology reaches people at a much faster rate than a good quality college education. In Sweden, young highschool students are joyfully enrolling into free, high-quality college education programs, but from a global perspective the choice between labour and getting degree is quite often very difficult to make. By getting a job early, one is able to financially support the family, while pursuing a degree is pretty much useless in the short term, while adding a significant debt to the household. I see that MOOCs solves this in two ways. It is potentially much cheaper than a college education, requiring in essence only hardware, a internet connection and a time-based subscription fee. It is also potentially flexible, which means that people who for various reasons can’t enroll in a normal program might be able to study at their own convenience by taking the course offline. It is true that people who solely relies on MOOCs will miss the social interaction that a university presents, and they might also lose the opportunity to meet with their college peers, which is also a great part of the education I might add, however this is a reasonable price to pay for cheaper and more flexible education. A short-term challenge is to set up an environments for MOOCs to really uphold academic standards while being reasonably cheap, although I believe this will be taken care of by the market economy and proper regulation. Another short-term challenge we face is the human factor; to overcome the prestigious label by having a real college degree, a feat I don’t think will be taken lightly anywhere in the near future, which is the groundwork for a career. Although we are seeing a decline in the perceived necessity of a college education in the last decade, with many superstar tech entrepreneurs being notoriously known for having dropped out of college, we have yet to see the extremely successful people having an MOOC education.


  6. I’m questioning whether MOOCs will disrupt the entire education industry and remove the need for physical universities. To be able to disrupt the entire industry, MOOCs for example need to overcome the difficulties of teaching all kind of knowledge virtually. With the trend of rapid technological improvements, I believe that it will be possible to have for example discussion forums and group work virtually. I however believe that there are limits to what we can achieve with technology. For example, learning processes that involves practical training (eg teaching students how to do surgery) will in my opinion be hard, or even impossible, to teach online. Even though it might be possible to create a virtual surgery environment that is very similar to the situation in real life, I believe that authorities will regulate the industry, demanding that a certain share of the training has to be done in real life. Another challenge that MOOCs need to overcome is the examination, where the possibilities for cheating need to be abolished and different examination forms need to be developed.

    Another reason why I believe that universities will continue to exist in the future is because they, with their communities, add value to the students through giving them possibilities to socialize and network with other students that they most probably will meet in their future career. Even though globalization probably means that we in the future to a larger extent will need both a globally dispersed network and experience of working in globally dispersed and virtual teams, I believe that we still will see great benefits from local networks. I therefore believe that students will continue to demand the community and network opportunities that the physical universities provide.

    In 20 years, I believe that the universities will have taken advantage of the concept of MOOCs and extensively offer the courses. However, I believe that MOOCs, due to the difficulties of teaching all kinds of knowledge virtually, will be limited to some and not all types of education. A development that I see possible is that universities, due to the fact that less space is needed for lectures, decrease in physical size but that one university start many “centers” for examination, practical training etc.

    The development will certainly be interesting to follow!


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