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Online Learning Making Education Fungible for Non-Traditional Students

AUDIO | Online Learning Making Education Fungible for Non-Traditional Students
Massive Open Online Courses will not have much impact on traditional, residential higher education. However, as these types of courses begin to garner credit, they will flatten the industry for non-traditional students and make education a more fungible product.

The following interview is with Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology for the master’s in health care delivery science program at Dartmouth College. Kim has written at length about how the new array of postsecondary options is changing the face of higher education. In this interview, Kim expands on those ideas and shares his thoughts on how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other for-profit approaches to postsecondary education are flattening the industry and making for a more fungible education product.

1. The higher education marketplace has become more competitive over the past decade as more providers have entered the space and more approaches to education are being offered. Is the higher education marketplace flat — where all competitors are on equal ground — or is it still striated with different ‘levels’ of providers competing against one another?

Basically you’re asking: is the world flat now in education and what impact has technology played in flattening that world? … What I see is that the world — the e-learning world — much like the actual world we live in is very spiky. In that, this dream of technology flattening everyone out so that we all have the same options and the same resources and we could all live in the cloud. There’s a lot of excitement about that idea but the reality, like with most things, is that our world moves more slowly than we like.

So, we can pick this apart and unpack that by schools and by companies; where would you like to start?

2. Ultimately I’m looking [to discuss] that blended marketplace that we started to develop, where Coursera is competing for enrollments with particular colleges and universities. But, if you’d rather start looking at colleges to colleges or companies to companies, I’m more than happy to hear your thoughts on that.

Well, that’s a great question. Are these new entities, are the Courseras or are the places that are doing partnerships like Pearson, with their purchase of Embanet Compass, or Colloquy, which is owned by Kaplan, or Blackboard’s trying to get into this world.

Are they actually competing with higher ed for enrollment? It’s not quite clear that’s actually happening now. It seems to me like there’s a lot of interest in partnering so that there’s a win-win with these companies and with these higher education providers. So I don’t see this as a closed pie. I see that the demand for postsecondary education is much larger than can be supplied at all different price points and that what’s happening is these new players coming in and saying, “Okay, if you’re at a certain level that you can afford a higher education, we’re going to give you these new options that did not exist anymore.” So, I’m actually very positive about these changes.

3. Do you think there are multiple marketplaces developing, where institutions that have partnered with a MOOC provider are on a higher ground than institutions that are retaining their traditional approach to education? Or is there going to be more competition between non-MOOC institutions or MOOC institutions?

I would say, definitely, the future is about partnerships and that companies who are in the … educational technology space will become much more meshed with these partnerships with non-profits. And that this will certainly be the way to go in the future.

I would be very concerned about investing in an educational technology company that is not going forward with a partnering-on-services path. The other part I’d say to this is really important to education, is that the demand for education far outstrips our supply. So, it’s actually a pretty good place to be in. It’s a good market when you have such a high demand.

What we’ve found, though, is that we can’t really match that demand. We’re either not at the places where students want to be in the classes or we can’t provide postsecondary education at a level that students can afford. So, we’re seeing that the for-profits — the University of Phoenixs, the Capellas, the Kaplans — have really gone into this market to meet an unmet need.

What’s so fascinating about this growth on one end — the MOOCs at a high scale — and then at the other end, these deals that the Pearsons or the Kaplans or the Embanet Compasses … are doing with institutions is to try to meet this demand. Often, that takes the form of online or blended learning but I would say that’s a really good news story for the students who are able to sign up for higher education where they previously had no options or maybe only a few options.

4. What are the most significant differentiators separating this array of options?

There’s certainly a lot of discussion now within higher ed, non-profit higher ed, about this move to partnership with for-profit institutions.

There are some of us in our community who are very concerned about this. There is this worry that we’re sourcing our core competencies. That if we source the development and running of our courses —  outside of the walls of our institution — … we’re going to lose out on those skills and those expertise.

It’s one thing if you source dining services or if you source, say, taking care of the ground or the lawn. It’s very different if we’re sourcing our core teaching and learning capabilities. And there’s many people in higher ed, or non-profit higher ed, who are wondering, “Well, does it really make sense for us to be entering into these partnerships where we don’t keep the knowledge in-house and that the revenue share is often really high?”

These partners do a lot; they do a lot of marketing, they bring the students, they help develop the programs, they provide the platforms, technology and the support where the institutions retain the intellectual property and the decisions about the courses.

I think we’re going to have a big debate whether we should be building this on our own or, hopefully, working with a consortium, or if we should be going down the road of these partnering for-profits. I don’t know whether this is going to work out but I do think the for-profit industry really has to get upfront of this and find a way to bring more comfort to us non-profits who have not entered into these sorts of partnerships that we’re actually doing the right sort of thing.

5. Are MOOCs making higher education more substitutable from institution to institution, and from provider to provider?

I think about this because I have two kids who will be going to college in 2015 and 2017 and … this will be our largest expense; to pay for our kids’ college. And it does make you stop and think that, “Well, could they get some of what they need with these Massively Open Online Courses and then maybe combine that?”

And the fact is that — at least with my wife and I, with our kids — we don’t see what MOOCs do as a substitute for what our kids can get in college. What we’re looking for is a relationship between the faculties — the knowledge creators — and our kids, the students. We’re looking for that bundled experience. We see college as a way to grow up, basically, and not only, in a way, to get the degree and the diploma — and increasingly MOOCs will be providing credentials.

For certain segment of the population, both traditional 18- to 22-year-old, the people who are being sent off to residential institutions, I don’t think that MOOCs are a substitute whatsoever. They might be a value-add. They will do a lot to change how we construct our courses on a campus which I think will have a positive effect and give some options on the margin, but they won’t change the core bundled residential experience.

Where I think MOOCs might play a really large role, particularly as you can start to get credit for MOOCs for very low cost, it will be very interesting what markets MOOCs do disrupt, … what effects MOOCs will have on the community colleges. There’s a lot of debate because we also know that people who come to community colleges get lots and lots of resources and support, and it’s part of the educational package that you don’t get with MOOCs. So, I don’t think it’s a real threat to the community college experience. But I do think that the market is going to change pretty dramatically over the next five years.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact of all these new educational providers on creating a more fungible educational product or a more replaceable educational product, where learning from one place could be substituted with learning from another?

What I’d like to see is a space [where] people who are leading the for-profit education providers — and that could be for-profit institutions such as Phoenix or Kaplan or Capella, or the people who are running the for-profit MOOCs, the for-profit publishers — where we can get together in a space, a virtual or physical space, with people like me who are non-profits and really figure out where we can work together for the future.

I think tax status has been made too much of. And that, in the end, we really all work for the students, we work for the people paying their tuition bills. I think we need to see ourselves as one industry and have really honest conversations and be willing to disagree and develop some trust with each other. Somehow, those spaces have not developed. … It’s very much needed.

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