Internet and Higher Education

A BusinessWeek article of 14th September, “Next: An Internet Revolution in Higher Education,” makes the case that the way higher education is done will be changed by the internet revolution. This is not the most earthshaking bit of news you may have heard since it is fairly obvious that nearly everything has been affected by the internet and in the future, every aspect of human society will be qualitatively different as a consequence of the ease with which information is recorded, stored, transmitted, searched, and retrieved.

In the article Kevin Maney, author of Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t, refers to what he calls “fidelity swap”: the idea that there’s a trade-off involved between what he calls “fidelity” and “convenience.”

In our everyday lives we constantly make trade-offs between fidelity and convenience. Fidelity is the total experience of something. At a rock concert, for instance, it’s not just the quality of the sound—which often isn’t as good as listening to music on a good stereo—but everything else, too, such as the show’s ambience and the bragging rights that come with having seen the band live. Convenience is how easy or hard it is to get what you want. That includes whether it’s readily available, whether it’s easy to do or use, and how much it costs. If something is less expensive, it’s naturally more convenient because it’s easier for more people to get it.

Further on he writes:

Once in a while, a market gets completely out of balance. Forces conspire to prevent either a high-fidelity or high-convenience player from emerging. All the offerings crowd around one end or the other. Eventually, someone nails a disruptive approach. Customers and competitors rush in and the marketplace wonders why that great idea didn’t come sooner.

The higher education market is a lot like that. For centuries the university model dominated because nothing else worked. No technology existed that might deliver an interactive, engaging educational experience without gathering students and teachers in the same physical space. In the past century, a powerful social bias set in: Only accredited universities were allowed to grant degrees, and most professional jobs required an accredited degree. Even though technologies emerged that might foster new models of higher education, the neat accreditation ecosystem locked out innovative competitors.

These days broadband Internet, video games, social networks, and other developments could combine to create an online, inexpensive, super-convenient model for higher education. You wouldn’t get the sights and sounds of a campus, personal contact with professors, or beer-soaked frat parties, but you’d end up with the knowledge you need and the degree to prove it.

I agree with the above viewpoint. The broad picture of economic development reveals that all complex activities, that involve numerous tasks which fall in different domains, tend to get horizontally segmented and the subtasks are performed by specialized firms, thus allowing economies of scale. I have written about the process previously. (See “The Future of Education and Technology — Part 2“. April 2009.)

To recap, consider the task of automobile manufacturing. At the nascent stage of the auto industry, an automobile firm would do everything in-house — basically make a car out of scratch, where scratch stands for “steel, glass, rubber, etc.” As the industry matured, and more cars began having sophisticated subsystems, the tasks were hived off to specialist firms: a few firms made wind shields and supplied to all auto firms; a few firms made the instruments, some made shock absorbers, some mufflers, some even specialized in engines.

The same process can be expected to happen in the education domain. Teaching will be horizontally segmented from testing, certification and evaluation. Some firms will specialize in teaching and some other firms will evaluate how effective the learning has been and to what extent. Companies are really interested in knowing whether an employee can do the job, not whether the employee has attended a specific course or a school. Regardless of how a person came to have a certain skill, the testing agency will certify the competency of the person in that skill.

Horizontal segmentation, as opposed to “vertical integration,” opens up the possibility of innovation and competition ensures that innovation happens. Wherever horizontal segmentation is not prohibited, it naturally happens because it lowers costs through scale economies. Education is in dire need of innovation. Some countries will allow these much needed innovations and they will prosper. Others will continue to languish because their policy makers will not allow change. India needs to think and behave differently — especially in the education sector.

India needs to move from just having a very small number of “high fidelity” schools (such as the IITs, IIMs etc) to having a very large number of “high convenience” schools — where there are no capacity constraints, and where anyone wanting to learn can do so without facing any credit constraints. From all indications, the entrepreneurs are waiting in the wings to bring that change about. They have to be allowed on to the stage.

[Thanks to Raja Sekhar Malapati for the BW link.]

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