Education chalkboardThere is a pattern to the disruption of industries – change happens slowly, with a few early-adopters taking a technology and innovating, but not always in the optimum way.  Then it happens quickly – and a whole industry can come tumbling down.  Take digital music, which had been around a few years before Apple took the technology, reached the masses and brought the music industry to its knees. The same happened with digital photography – which gained an early foothold, but not until the smartphone came along did consumer behaviour completely change in a way that the photographic industry failed to predict.

Massive open online courses (MOOCS) will disrupt university education. Distance learning courses have been around for years, and have a particularly strong history in the UK, with the Open University founded back in 1969. But only now is there a convergence of trends that will cause an explosion in online education and change our university system forever.  The recession has hit middle-class parents hard and low income families harder, right at a time when university fees are rising. Technology has raced on, to the point where institutions can deliver a sophisticated degree programme at a fraction of the cost of a traditional degree.

Coursera partners with 62 Universities from 14 countries to deliver free online education to anyone who wants it. In only a year it has attracted 3.2 million global users and, earlier this year, has had 5 of its courses given college degree status.

Udacity has a similar mission to deliver high quality, low cost education. Founded by Google X founder Sebastian Thrun, it is a heavy-hitting entrant to the educational space and has recently collaborated with the Georgia Institute of Technology to launch an Online Master of Computer Science degree that is making US Universities twitchy.  As Time Magazine says “Georgia Tech’s announcement….is a game changer that will have other top-tier universities that offer degrees in computer science scrambling to compete.”

In the next few years, universities will have to demonstrate that their on-campus offer really delivers an education and experience beyond that which online courses can deliver. The danger will be that only the wealthy can afford them. An earlier, bigger, danger is a massive negative economic impact for those universities who are behind the curve or don’t have the ‘name’ or financial backing as high end degrees become more accessible through online learning. We will surely see many smaller and less prestigious universities disappear within the next 20 years.

The combination of this disruption to the education system with the increasing automation of knowledge careers and the influence of the value system of Generation X mean that the traditional campus-based university degree may return to a position where only the very academic or wealthy few will make the investment.

Generation X parents have been hit hard by the recession.  They are relatively happy with risk and will be seeing and living the changing nature of education and work. They won’t the feel the need to encourage their children to go make a huge investment in a campus degree if there is no clear benefit.  Even if their family is wealthy enough to afford it, Generation Z may well agree with their parents that the money is better used to fund online learning, a deposit for a flat, or invest in a business idea.  Entrepreunership will become a career-choice in itself.

The impact on business will be that employers will have to look harder for talent.  Or at least, the relatively straightforward ‘milk round’ will no longer be a viable source of candidates, as graduates will be not be gathered in number in central locations.  On the other hand, there will be more graduates from prestigious universities as they reach a larger online student body, so employers will need to find new ways of differentiating between them.  Many of the brightest young people may not even be graduates. The whole landscape will change and businesses will have to reshape around it in order to manage diverse streams of candidates. The “one size fits all” graduate programme is likely to become a thing of the past as businesses are forced to integrate new young employees from many different attainment backgrounds – and those employees expect an individualised career path tailored to their talents and objectives.

It’s a lot of change and it will be a challenging transition.  But businesses and employees alike will gain a huge amount from the better recognition and understanding of the diversity of talents, backgrounds and life goals that are the reality of human existence, and not always fully represented by a college degree.


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