The Future of Higher Ed – A Hybrid?

I was interested to read the Economist’s take on the future of universities, but I was a bit disappointed by the content. After stating the obvious with extreme rigor (costs are sky-rocketing and financial support is plunging), there were few interesting or intriguing ideas. Instead it seemed to come back to MOOCs, MOOCs and more MOOCs.

In fairness, the piece lays out many of the short-comings of MOOCs like poor completion rates, the challenge of testing and credentialing, etc., but it then kind of leaves the issue flat. My dad has been a professor at Northwestern for some 40 years so I asked him for another view. His point was an intriguing one – MOOCs recreate online the least important part of the college or university experience. In a sense, they are little better than open-source textbooks. They don’t have a social element, teach critical thinking, provide networking opportunities or have any kind of brand affiliation. They are useful for self-motivated learners who want to increase their knowledge, but they do very little for an average college student.

So how could this be better?

I propose a hybrid approach. First off, what’s driving up the costs of college tuitions? It’s primarily faculty and amenities ranging from fancy dorms to gleaming athletic facilities. But there are parts of the university experience that still work very well and at a quite reasonable price. So here’s how a hybrid would work:

First, a university would set up a separate, virtual college. This is not dissimilar to having an executive MBA program coexist alongside a traditional MBA program. Both are part of the university, but they have slightly different branding, requirements and admissions guidelines.

Second, students apply to the virtual college the same way they would to the traditional one. The expectation is that students would either be within transit distance of the university or be willing to relocate there if they get in. There would still be academic requirements and even an application fee (though a marginal one) to apply.

Once admitted, the student would register for the classes they want to take just like traditional students, but they would attend the lectures online, via MOOCs. Study groups could be created by geolocating users and picking a central point (like a Starbucks) and a regular time for meeting. This begins to solve for the social aspect of the experience.

Where they hybrid part really kicks in, however, is with office hours and exams. These would actually be delivered on the university campus, but typically off-hours from traditional lectures. The office hours would be overseen by TAs rather than professors (not uncommon in many universities anyway), incidentally creating more work-study opportunities for traditional students (in fact traditional students in those same classes could attend as well, providing some additional value.)

Also, exams, though taken online, would be administered on campus. TAs can check IDs or do other basic identity verification. Many exam sessions could be made available for flexible scheduling, since the students in the room can be taking exams for all different subjects. The point of being in the room is only to verify who is taking the tests.

By using cheap resources (TAs, unused lecture halls after hours), the university can make up for many of the short-comings of MOOCs without burdening students with the most expensive line items. The goal would be something like an 80/20 value split – 80% of the educational value of a traditional degree at 20% of the cost.

It used to be a big no-no for tech companies to try to leverage real world assets since they were seen as non-scalable. However, as Uber, Airbnb, OpenTable, Groupon and so many other have shown, leverage the excess capacity of existing assets is a beautiful business model that scales wonderfully.

If an approach like this worked for higher ed, it would have many ancillary benefits: a bigger donor base for the sponsoring universities, greater credibility for online degrees with employers and more. And while charging some tuition may put some people off, generally people don’t value something they got for free (often for good reason.) I’ll certainly wager that the drop-out rates from a hybrid program would be far lower than for a fully online degree. There are also opportunities to customize such a program in many ways: virtual college students could be offered access to campus services ranging from libraries to sports centers for incremental fees.

It’s just an idea, but I haven’t seen anything like this yet. Have you?

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