College Hasn’t Changed Much Yet (in 30 Years)


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Our twins are about to wrap up their first semester and one thing is clear: 30 years after I went, and 20 years after the web exploded, college has barely changed. Sure, students all have smartphones and laptops, but they also carry around big text and heavy textbooks, go to lectures with frontal presentation from professors and take exams in blue books. They go for four years with maybe a semester (or possibly even a year) abroad if they are lucky. They declare a major at some point and the majority of students pick a traditional discipline.

Now I am sure that my n = 2 is not enough of a sample and there are maybe schools out there that are doing something dramatically new already, but clearly there is a ton of room for innovation. There is also a huge need for it with over $1 trillion in student and many students not able to earn back the expense of college. I am convinced that in another 30 years from now, higher education will have changed significantly. This strikes me as an instance of where it has been easy to overestimate the rate of change, but will also turn out now to be easy to underestimate the ultimate degree of change.

What are some of the things we might see? The biggest change I expect to see over time is a move away from four years in one location. There has been some pickup in two year programs which is a start. But much further unbundling will likely occur and Udacity’s Nanodegrees are an interesting innovation in that regard.

Another example of what the future may bring comes from a non-profit, University of the People, which Susan and I have supported. University of the People is US accredited but is tuition free. While initially financed from donations, the model is now self sustaining based on assessment fees. This works because the university has lots of volunteers and no physical infrastructure (students learn via online courses).

I am excited that USV portfolio company Top Hat is building some of the ingredients for a new experience. They provide a collaborative content authoring platform on which professors can work together to create engaging interactive content. They also allow for an engaging in-classroom experience that gives professors data on who among their students is coming along easily and who is falling behind. These are ingredients to a different learning experience and when I attended Top Hat’s Engage conference earlier this year, I was inspired by the way some professors are using the tools in really innovative ways.

If you are aware of a college or a startup that is doing something really innovative in higher education, I would love to know. We need lots of experimentation here to find a new system.