How higher education may go best of breed, be disassembled amid online learning

Universities resemble cable companies and enterprise software companies that believed in the power of the bundle and suite. COVID-19 and online learning have accelerated higher education's day of reckoning.

With universities going completely online or hybrid it's time to ponder the future of higher education through the lens of disaggregation. In other words, higher education may face a reckoning much like cable companies, license-based enterprise software companies and data center vendors as bundles blew up.

Here's higher education before COVID-19: You pay tuition that ranges from somewhat ridiculous to extremely ridiculous (and mostly funded by debt) based on a university's brand. The university provides a suite of classes (some great, some meh), an experience and a vague concept of return on investment that may or may not pan out. Social networking in the real world is a bonus.

Now consider higher education today. Many schools like Harvard, Rutgers and a bevy of others have moved online for the most part. Suddenly, $50,000 to $75,000 a year in tuition looks absurd and protests are already underway. Online education may evolve to match in-person instruction, but it's not there today. It's certainly not worth the tuition rates.

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Online education will level the playing field for many institutions, which have become more adept at real estate development than education, and usher in the possibility for a best of breed approach to higher ed. Just like the cable bundle got overpriced and enabled over-the-top streaming models and enterprise software became so cumbersome that software as a service surged, higher ed can decentralize.

Ultimately, students will be able to assemble educations based on the best online experience at a lower price. Just like cloud applications are stitched together by APIs higher education courses will be too.

Now this disruption in higher education has been sped up dramatically by COVID-19, but there's more work to be done. To truly create best-of-breed higher ed, we'll need a new ecosystem. Specifically, we'll need the following:

  • Aggregators that will be able to provide the degree layer. This degree layer is basically the platform that'll issue your diploma and manage the education experience. Coursera could be an option here and existing universities could expand online to become aggregators. 
  • New tuition models. With a best of breed model, you may pay $300 for that psychology general ed class and $1200 for computer science 101. Some classes will be free. Perhaps you'll pay different rates based on quality of the instructor. Today, you pay per credit hour regardless of the class. Students will be able to manage costs by arranging their curriculum based on a budget. Another model would revolve around subscriptions that could cover post grad training too.
  • Content providers that rate and curate courses. Chegg could evolve into more of a media company over time. Coursera is another option. And don't be surprised if Apple, Google or Microsoft enter the fray.
  • Software providers to improve the experience. Augmented reality and virtual reality should have a role in higher ed (at least for labs) but the ecosystem isn't fully baked yet. New collaboration platforms and learning management systems will be needed. These next-gen systems will need to stitch together individual universities.
  • Electronic education records that would mimic electronic medical records. These electronic transcripts could be shared among universities and employers and highlight a person's portfolio of skills inside and outside the university structure. Think CV meets resume meets transcript in real time. 

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The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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