Finding the Disruptive Element in Higher Education – Part 2

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Finding the Disruptive Element in Higher Education – Part 2

I wrote the other day about new ways of approaching higher education and how this sector is ready for a serious shake up. And it got me thinking about innovation and disruption, and how much of it we actually need to make a huge impact on the way higher education is seen and received. And then I thought that making education free and readily available online, which is kind of what’s happening now: that’s the disruption.

University is an incredible experience, but traditionally it’s also an incredibly expensive experience. Looking at the price of university nowadays, and comparing the thousands and thousands worth of fees to the income of the average 18 year old school leaver, I think it is absolutely crucial that providers of higher education (and governments) begin to look at where funding could come from other than from the pockets of students and their parents. Free online courses are great because they offer access to anyone anywhere, giving a student the chance to learn university level courses regardless of their location or financial situation, and while working full time. One of the biggest barriers to the success of this kind of online learning experience is the lack of obvious monetization – if students aren’t paying, someone else will have to.

Higher education student

I was lucky enough to go along to the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN conference a month or so ago where there was much discussion about the potential for money making with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Suggestions for possible business models included the short-term fix of offering (and charging for) accreditation and qualifications for the online courses. More long term and viable options included things like screening for employers or universities, using the medium as a recruitment tool, or the sad but lucrative path of advertising. Interestingly, discussion pretty much avoided the possible route of charging for the courses. This, to me, signifies a real desire from the education community to find the thing that is going to shake up education, and that this is likely to be it.

One of the big names in the game is Coursera, a San Francisco based startup that popped up in April 2012. It offers courses from institutions like Princeton, Brown University and Columbia, as well as international schools like the University of Edinburgh and the University of Hong Kong. Despite not having a clear business model, the company has raised some $16 million in venture capital. It was announced via the blog in December that ‘Coursera Career Services’ will be offered to students – a recruitment platform that connects them with jobs matching their skill set.

Duolingo’s ‘translating the web’ business model is an interesting one in this context because it demonstrates a kind of reciprocal business model. There is rarely just one target market for your business, and Duolingo has found the most lucrative part of its target market to extract money from. It’s a win-win situation – the user gets to learn for free, and the companies using the service get high quality translations for a fraction of the price of a professional translator. While this kind of business model may not be an option for every education startup, it’s a really good place to start thinking about the reciprocal nature of business and how money doesn’t always come from the places that you would traditionally think.

The education sector is undoubtedly going to change vastly in the next ten years, and the scariest thing about it is that no-one can really predict how this will happen or what this will mean for businesses surrounding education. Is free, universal education enough of a disruption to change the way people think about teaching and learning? And if it isn’t, then what is? 

Part I:


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