Two models of higher education–competency-based learning and MOOCs–are offering alternatives to conventional higher education and shaping the future of online higher education. Given below are recent developments which highlight this trend:
- Southern New Hampshire University, a private university in New Hampshire, “is poised to launch a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would be the first to blow up the credit hour–the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning.” In addition, it had been in gaining attention for its aggressive growth in online programs as a non-profit. It enrolled 2,750 undergraduates in its campus and another 25,000 in its online programs. The revenue for this “Little College That’s a Giant Online” is forecasted to reach $200 million in the next academic year—four times what it took in for 2010-11.
- Western Governors University founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states in 1995, is an online university offering competency-based degree programs to more than 38,000 students. “Western Governors University, also a nonprofit, has gotten by far the most attention in the competency-based space. A federal law, passed in 2005, was designed to clear the way for Western Governors to participate in federal aid programs while directly assessing student learning. The university, however, did not pursue that authority, partially because of worries about whether employers and accreditors would accept competency-based degrees. So Western Governors, like all other institutions, connects student competencies to the credit hour.”
- Georgia Tech, one of the leading non-profit university, announced launch of a $7,000 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years in partnership with AT&T and Udacity at a sixth of the price of its current degree. The revenue will be split 60:40 between Georgia Tech and Udacity, while AT&T is subsidizing the effort financially to ensure that it will break even in its first year, making it may be “first-of-its-kind template for the evolving role of public universities and corporations.” This kind of program–engineering-focused, master-level degree from a reputed university–may have high potential for international markets. Already edX, a non-profit venture spun out of MIT and Harvard, has Indians as the second-largest group of students and Indians constitute nearly 9% of Coursera’s over 3 millions users. (Coursera also signed up 10 public university systems to make their courses available online).
To sum up, in times of increasing costs and doubts about the ROI of degree, higher education is facing tough challenge from new models of learning like MOOCs and competency-based learning. In fact, the new models are going to not only challenge learning but the whole philosophy and practice. For example, SNHU hired the former CEO of an online customer-relationship company as director of online programs, to retool SNHU’s operations in the style of Zappos and Amazon. She says that “We have to pick up the phone, treat our students as customers, respect their opinions.”
Is higher education willing and able to “serve the customers” and meet their changing needs?