The Transformation Of Higher Education

I’ve spent my free time the last couple of years twiddling with the idea of an integrated platform that simplifies the workflow of university faculty as they interact daily with their students and showcase their research and the courses they teach. Until recently, this seemed like an innocuous hobby. But my recent decision to fully commit to the project has led to some pretty intense conversations with some of my loved ones. Why would I give up on an income that is in the upper tier of American households to work on a project that, given the rate of success for startups, isn’t likely to succeed?

I’ve used and developed higher education software solutions for years. In 2007, while working at a neuroscience laboratory and studying biomedical engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY), I built a video hub for faculty to upload recorded lectures for students to watch and discuss later. Since graduation, I’ve worked as a software developer and mentor to undergraduates conducting research at NOAA-Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center. Some of the software projects I’ve worked on within the context of academia include a group collaboration web app; a web interface for IT personnel to schedule archiving of tens of thousands of university emails; an algorithm for detecting mail server hacking attempts; an SDK for authorized developers to develop, deploy, and maintain apps that utilize university data sources; and, more recently, while serving as a web applications manager, I’ve worked with university stakeholders to develop features for and maintain CCNY’s main public facing website.

“Nothing, not all the armies of the world, can stop an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo before his death in 1885. Platforms are poised to transform higher education within the next 5 to 10 years. In their book, Platform Revolution, Sangeet Paul Choudary and Marshall W. Van Alstyne, argue that industries that are ripe for and that will eventually succumb to platform disruption include industries like education that are information intensive, highly fragmented, have non-scalable gatekeepers, and characterized by extreme information asymmetries. The problem with higher education runs deeper. Colleges and universities across the U.S. face crippling financial crises stemming from budget cuts, changing demographics, and declining enrollment. And instead of rethinking the traditional education business model or investing in pedagogical development and innovative cost saving technologies, many administrators are choosing to borrow and double down on buildings and fragmented IT infrastructure with siloed databases. As tuition costs skyrocket, more students are opting for cheaper alternatives that allow them to avoid loans or reduce their debt burden. Choudary and Alstyne write:

The long-term implications of the coming explosion in educational experimentation are difficult to predict with certainty. But it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the 3,000 colleges and universities that currently dominate the U.S. higher education market were to fail, their economic rationale fatally undercut by the vastly better economics of platforms.

Platforms like edX, Udemy, Khan Academy, Knewton, and Coursera are on the rise as college and university enrollment and revenue continues to decline. We’re experiencing the early stages of the transformation of higher education. More students will opt for micro skills based credentials as advances in technology continue to make it easier for interconnected platforms to deploy algorithms that sift through massive amounts of data to extract, contextualize, and bundle learning materials for specific students based on their learning behaviors. My mission with Clientbucket is to continue to help empower forward thinking institutions with the tools they’ll need to navigate the impending transformation.

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