Addressing the Urgent Need for Global Lifelong Learning

Colleges and universities have witnessed the specter of technological disruption creeping across their landscape. This disruption began as a trickle of online course offerings, which portended an era of educational innovation — interesting, but nothing for the higher education community to fear. In fact, in classic disruption pattern, existing institutions thought they had addressed the threat with distance learning initiatives. Today, however, that trickle of innovation has grown into a rushing stream, ushering in any number of new “institutions” that promise part-time MBA programs, executive education at business schools, master’s degrees in computer science and other alternative certificates.

Collectively, these programs have come to redefine the whole notion of traditional “continuing education.” And while the quality of such programs varies, what can be said with certainty is that the momentum for disruption is accelerating and the impact of this disruptive development is inevitable — creating both a huge opportunity for those willing to invest and adapt, and a major threat for those not willing to experiment with new models. While Continuing Education has long played a critical role for lifelong learning and America’s workforce, before any other segment of higher education, these programs are most at risk of being disrupted. Online destination sites such as Lynda, Udemy, Udacity and Coursera are aggregating users at rapid speed and scale. They’re also aggregating large catalogs of courses while concurrently building their own based on industry needs. If Continuing Education is to survive, its leaders will need to forge strong partnerships with innovations and technology experts that can help them adapt in this rapidly changing environment.

Thus Continuing Education in America needs to re- examine its strategy in light of changes in technology. To remain relevant and to continue to engage learners, it needs to harness an improved operating system including cloud and mobile. Past practices are now out of sync with the opportunities available through today’s technology. For better or for worse, we are at the defining moment for Continuing Education, and we must think differently, move boldly and rapidly become more technology aligned and ‘learner-centric’. Disruption is always first an opportunity before it becomes a threat.

The Future is Now

Education technology innovation threatens the very livelihood of the traditional college model. As Nathan Harden wrote in his 2012 article, The End of the University as We Know It, “In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.” Harden predicts that access to college-level education will be free for everyone, that the residential college campus will become largely obsolete, that many professors will shift to their core skill of research and writing, and that the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant. While the outlook may not be quite so apocalyptic, it is none-the-less true that the technology driving this change is already in place and hard at work. In other words, the future is now.

In May 2013 the Georgia Institute of Technology (better known as Georgia Tech), announced that it would begin offering a low-cost, online Master of Computer Science degree. The cost would be $6,600, or less than 20% of the $40,000 price tag for a traditional on-campus degree. The decision sparked high interest by college and university administrators who had been experimenting with offering MOOCs (massive open online courses). Professors, however,viewed the announcement as a potential threat to their livelihood. There is a certain irony here in that the administrators should have been equally wary of Georgia Tech’s announcement. The increasing, and somewhat rapid growth of MOOCs points to a change that will, over time, affect all aspects of all institutions of higher learning. As college and university administrators are aware, programs that have been highly revenue generating may soon fade into a distant memory as a result of MOOCs, especially those offered by venture-funded providers.

Granted, Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree alone is not innovative, colleges have been offering various online courses for years. But Georgia Tech significantly altered the playing field by offering a graduate program at a fraction of the usual cost. A confluence of factors related to cost makes colleges and universities vulnerable to digital disruption. First, universities have priced themselves out of reach.According to the Wall Street Journal, since 1990,college costs have increased at four times the rate of inflation. Second, student loans are upwards of $1 trillion. The loan issue is especially relevant in light of the fact that a disturbingly large number of recent college graduates are finding that their education credentials are not the ticket to the jobs they had hoped to find. This third factor of upward of 50% of recent college graduates not finding jobs at all, or being under-employed, according to Associated Press data, is causing students of higher education, and their parents, to stop and seriously contemplate the return on investment.

Building Community and Brand

It is against this background of colleges and universities struggling to deliver on the promise of a brighter future that Continuing Education has assumed an increasingly important role in higher education. These offerings are creating large and unique communities of working adults who understand that online courses, with their attractive combination of convenience, relevance, and affordability — may be the best course of action. Such courses can enhance existing job skills or make training for alternative careers more feasible. As a result, online certificate executive education and part time programs continue to be offered at many higher education institutions.

Looking to the future, institutions that can offer the right kinds of online programs at the right price have a distinct advantage — they are building a community of users loyal to their brand who can become lifetime consumers of education — provided they are powered by user-centric technologies. Unlike traditional residential universities where undergraduate students enter, stay four years and then exit for good — online communities consist of adults who have realized the value of regularly upgrading their skills and knowledge. They become a long-term recurring revenue stream for institutions that have the ability to deliver value for the investment of time and dollars.

An online engaged community transforms the traditional model of a “one-time transaction” to that of a new paradigm in which life-long learners keep returning to those communities that have proven their value. Ultimately, the undergraduate experience will be a blend of on and offline, thus forming an enduring community from the start of the higher education experience that extends beyond a constrained four-year period. This is the Silicon Valley strategy, but it is yet to be embraced by higher education.

Colleges and universities are keenly aware of the potential benefits of online courses. In the newly emerging model, the extent to which online courses can be a magnet for students with significant potential for growth and ongoing revenue is greatly intensified. In the recent rush to join the stampede and get a course online through a MOOC, the emphasis has been on the low-cost publicity value of trying to demonstrate that they are in step with advancing technology.

Scale versus Effectiveness

The perennial paradox of how to scale quality and excellence in teaching and learning to a broader base of students is the key challenge that higher education institutions need to tackle. In the traditional model, the large lecture hall was used to scale, not as a pedagogical advancement, but rather as a cost effectiveness mechanism. More recently, some MOOC courses have scaled to high numbers, but with low retention and completion rates. Today, we have the capabilities provided by technology to balance both scale and effectiveness by developing and broadcasting pedagogical advancements while simultaneously tailoring the experience and engagement to each learner, anytime, anywhere.

A Necessary Partnership

What is needed in this post MOOC frenzy is to solve the scale versus effectiveness paradox through higher education partnerships with a modern learner-centric platform partner that truly understands the power of online and mobile learning. Moving forward, partnerships that can create meaningful learning experiences geared to the realities and demands of the marketplace will outpace other options. In addition, the right partner can assist in marketing these programs in ways that build the desired community of users who will keep returning for more. Higher education institutions in general, and Continuing Education Deans in particular, typically have neither the marketing resources nor Internet expertise to execute on this kind of focused and effective approach. But the right platform partner can help ensure that marketing dollars are, in fact, sound investments.

Continuing Education is not just about catering to the ongoing learning needs of working adults, but forming more meaningful partnerships with the institutions themselves. Udacity has done this with AT&T and similar efforts are underway at Udemy. Continuing Education needs to move beyond content/course creation placed online. It must embrace community building and lifelong learning — with and through a community of like-minded individuals. Social learning becomes the biggest differentiator because it is the most effective way to align Continuing Education with the needs and expectations of working adults who are extraordinarily busy and simultaneously trying to balance work, family, and learning.

What will the university of tomorrow look like? Will a small number of superstar lecturers dominate through broadcast lectures? And, if they do, what role will today’s university programs play in tomorrow’s student experience? Or, should the focus now shift to experimentation in developing more effective and efficient strategies in this area? MOOCs alone will not become the university of tomorrow. However, innovation means that traditional methods will need to change and the smart institutions will learn from the best of other platforms that are thriving.

A significant subset of universities with Continuing Education programs have rushed to put their courses online without working through the relevant details that make the real difference. They have, in some cases, created portals that have mushroomed into large Continuing Education sites. Georgia Tech is working with Udacity, one of several new Education Service Providers (ESPs). Many others work with Udemy, another ESP. Beyond the content provided by universities, these destination sites are also building their own content that may, in time, displace that provided by higher education. Udacity has publicly announced that it had committed 35 million dollars to build their own top courses. Certificates from Coursera are showing up more frequently on LinkedIn online resumes, and students are flocking to enroll, possibly because of the better catalogs of offerings and online delivery optimization.

For universities, current MOOC platforms may look like inexpensive hosting sites with branding opportunities for the university. But they are slowly becoming content/course providers themselves after building momentum based on third-party content. The immediate difficulty for Continuing Education, however, is that most universities simply don’t have the marketing resources to compete with these larger destination sites. As a result, they have simply let their valuable brand, content and courses exist in catalogues on third party sites in return for general marketing.

An alternative approach would be for the large continuing education shops to seize the opportunity and do what they do best, better than third party marketing outlets. They should:

■ Begin the process of piloting and experimentation, try new ideas and become stronger in technology.

■ Protect their valuable content by working with a platform partner who will help them retain their brand using Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms

The reason, in large part, why the ESP have captured public attention is because they are using technology that is closer to design and user experience of the everyday Web and mobile technology people use day- to-day. The drawback is that the providers are doing this for their gain — not for shared gain with universities. By coming to understand Software as a Service, and the clear benefits thereof for universities, Continuing Education can transition from a cottage industry of courses and programs — to a social learning phenomenon that allows universities to compete more effectively.

The Strength of SaaS

SaaS is a software delivery method that provides access to software and its functions remotely as a Web-based service. SaaS allows organizations to access functionality at a cost typically less than paying for licensed applications, in part because SaaS pricing is based on a monthly fee. Also, because the software is hosted remotely, users don’t need to invest in additional hardware. SaaS removes the need for organizations to build up an extensive on-site IT department just to handle the installation, set-up and daily upkeep and maintenance. SaaS is sometimes referred to as simply hosted applications

EdCast, a SaaS platform, is already partnering with several Continuing Education schools in the U.S. and in other parts of the world to strengthen their community presence, and create a Knowledge Cloud platform enabling collaboration at the institution,instructor and student levels. The company is working with such thought leaders as Michigan State University, Sustainable Development Solutions Network — a United Nations initiative with over 40+ tier universities, Queensland Technology University, University of Northampton and others. In each case, the basic idea is to create a ‘multiversity’ in which students, wherever they are, can participate fully in a community of online learners.

Rather than be a disruptive force like MOOCs, with a focus on scale alone, a new concept is being offered by EdCast to address the scale/effectiveness paradox: the “multiversity.” The multiversity will help institutions by lowering costs and ensuring full functionality. The Open Education Consortium (OEC), for example, recently partnered with EdCast to help its OEC’s 300 universities connect through their Knowledge Cloud platform which is now home to more than 30,000 modules of content existing in open content libraries across those 300 universities for students worldwide.What EdCast truly represents is a personal learning network designed to enhance collaboration and learning across educational materials, instructors, students and employers. The company has built a Knowledge Cloud™ that power online learning portals built on OpenedX, allowing millions of students at world-class institutions, enterprises, governments and non-profits — to collaborate and engage in rich learning experiences. EdCast makes creating a branded live-course easy, effective and economical.

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