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The Great Upheaval – Is the Beginning of the End in Sight?

The Great Upheaval – Is the Beginning of the End in Sight?

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of The Great Upheaval. Written by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt, the book provided an excellent explanation why an industry that has not changed for hundreds of years will be forced to transform itself or die.

In The Great Upheaval, Levine and Van Pelt compared higher education to the music, movie, and newspaper industries whose business models were crushed by technological innovations. They wrote that the change would occur due to the demands of the global and digital knowledge economy.

Several announcements since I wrote the review of The Great Upheaval caused me to reread their conclusions. Levine and Van Pelt wrote that there are five realities that will shape the future of higher education. They are:

  • Institutional control of higher education will decrease, and the power of higher education consumers will increase.
  • With near-universal access to digital devices and the internet, students will seek from higher education the same things they are getting today from the music, movie, and newspaper industries.
  • New content producers and distributors will enter the higher education marketplace, driving up institutional competition and consumer choice and driving down prices.
  • The industrial era model of higher education, focusing on time, process, and teaching, will be eclipsed by a knowledge economy successor rooted in outcomes and learning.
  • The dominance of degrees and just-in-case education will diminish; non-degree certifications and just-in-time education will increase in status and value.

Levine and Van Pelt recommend that colleges and universities:

  • Do not plan for business as usual.
  • Recognize higher education is in the education business and not the campus, degree, or credit business.
  • Know tomorrow will not be a repeat of yesterday.
  • Restore the connection with the street.
  • Make institutions distinctive; give them a value-add or plus that distinguishes them from peers.

Recently, 2U’s announcement that it had completed its acquisition of edX impelled me to reread my review of The Great Upheaval.

An early paragraph in 2U’s announcement indicates that the merger will enable or enhance four of the five realities that Levine and Van Pelt believe will shape the future of higher education.

According to 2U, “Together, 2U and edX will now serve more than 230 partners – including 19 of the top 20 ranked universities globally – and offer more than 3,500 online learning opportunities to 40 million learners, including free courses, executive education, boot camps, and undergraduate and graduate degrees. The transaction will immediately expand learner access to affordable online education from the world’s best institutions, while providing university and corporate partners with the technology and support to deliver high-impact, high-quality digital education that reaches millions of learners worldwide.”

The reality that I believe the merger does not currently address is “the knowledge economy successor rooted in outcomes and learning.” But given the size of the combined entities and the commitment or recommitment of participating institutions to add courses and disruptively priced degrees, it’s only a matter of time until outcomes data beyond course and degree completions is tracked and improved through improvements in course design and pedagogy.

The 2U/edX merger clearly meets many of Levine’s and Van Pelt’s recommendations for colleges and universities that I’ll repeat for clarity:

  • Do not plan for business as usual.
  • Recognize higher education is in the education business and not the campus, degree, or credit business.
  • Know tomorrow will not be a repeat of yesterday.
  • Restore the connection with the street.
  • Make institutions distinctive; give them a value-add or plus that distinguishes them from peers.

What is not certain is whether 2U/edX will meet the last two recommendations over the long haul. While touting its association with some of the highest rated universities in the world, 2U/edX must be mindful that those institutions have maintained their elite statuses by educating a miniscule and highly intelligent percentage of higher education’s students. Generally, the low-cost online degrees offered by these institutions through edX have not cannibalized their student populations.

Non-elite colleges and universities will be the big losers in the upheaval outlined by Levine and Van Pelt. With the completion of the 2U/edX merger as well as the recent Initial Public Offering (IPO) by Coursera, even publicly funded institutions are likely to fall behind these well-funded disruptive platforms.

There are other education platforms like Udemy and Udacity as well as tech companies nibbling on the edges of higher education. As these companies leverage their size and financial wherewithal to increase market share, the shift will create more upheaval.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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