Three years ago, it seemed like education – especially higher education – was on the cusp of a massive disruption.
Ed-tech, particularly massive open online courses, was going to change everything.
The days of going to a physical university, taking a prescribed selection of classes and learning from whichever instructor was assigned to your section were almost over. Instead, anyone, anywhere would be able to study any subject with the leading experts in that field.
Degrees would be replaced by something more flexible, something more learner-directed. Higher education would be democratized and a system that had seen little change in centuries would be replaced by one designed for the modern world.
But this disruption never came.
Universities have not changed the way they teach or the way they award degrees. MOOC are, if anything, less mainstream (or at least less talked about) now than they were three years ago.
Part of it was the technology, the startups aiming to disrupt higher education don’t provide the level of interaction with instructors offered by traditional universities.
Part of it was the education, free online courses tend not to have the same level of depth as traditional courses, they require less commitment.
Part of it was that they aimed too big.
Disrupting higher education requires convincing employers who look for university degrees to accept something else. Students have to be convinced that the credentials they gain from an open online class will be just as valuable as a university degree.
Certainly, there are some trends pointing in this direction. Many employers (particularly in tech) are abandoning mandatory education requirements and focuses on what people can do, not where or how they learned to do it.
This shift will be slow and ed-tech may play little role in it.
After all, the new wave of technology-focused education companies, bootcamps like Brainstation, Hacker You, Lighthouse Labs and DecodeMTL are built around in-person classes, not online lessons.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for disruption in higher education, in fact, higher education might be more ripe for disruption than ever before.
This fall, I took some university classes for the first time in five years. I expected to see some evolution in the way technology was used.
There had been almost none.
In some cases – like with the online “student portal” – there had been no obvious updates since I first started at Concordia University a decade ago.
My profs were using Moodle, a course management system, more than they were a few years ago but post little more than course outlines and practice exams.
Even the online class I took looked the same as one I took seven or eight years ago (the time commitment and difficulty set it apart from a MOOC, the lack of interaction with the professor and the rest of the class set it apart from a regular class).
Here there are major opportunities. Building a better registration system, or a learning management system that people actually want to use might not be as sexy as disrupting the entire university system but someone has to do it.
The real opportunity for disruption though, might be the large textbook publishers.
They’ve seen the writing on the wall and are have developed interactive homework and studying platforms.
The problem is that all of these products, or at least the ones I had to use, were bad. They suffered from poor design and user experience and in one case, from an inability to recognize correct answers to math questions they weren’t expressed in a specific, unstated and always changing way.
It’s especially striking when you look at what Khan Academy, a small non-profit ed-tech startup, gives away for free.
It’s a market that has all the hallmarks of disruptability – incumbents that charge too much for subpar products.
When you look at the ed-tech startups that are finding success, it’s the ones who started small, who found a niche where they could outshine their big competitors and built from there.
Make no mistake, the disruption of education is coming but the disruptors won’t be the people who set out to change the entire system as their first step.