Blog Post

4 Platforms That Will Disrupt Higher Education

There are significant changes on the horizon in higher education.  While it may take years from them to fully take effect I think we are well into the beginning of a new era.  

Straighterline: This platform allows students to take course for a reduced rate that will automatically transfer to participating colleges and universities.  The courses are self-directed and allow students to work at their own pace.  The website is clear that it is not a college and therefore not accredited but their coursework will transfer to colleges that are and will count the same as college credit.

The Disruption:  A major reason for students enrolling in community colleges is to avoid the high cost of tuition for introductory courses.  This website provides an alternative to community colleges for the same demographic of students that community colleges often appeal to.  Students who are self-motivated, have little time to waste figuring out enrollment and financial aid, already are working with families who want to streamline their college career can now do so with more ease and less expense.

Udacity: Recently, a Stanford professor made news by offering a course in artificial intelligence and allowing anyone to enroll in the course online for free.  Students who did so did not receive college credit from Stanford but they did receive a certificate of completion.  The course enrolled over 100,000 students.  Now, that same Stanford professor has created Udacity where other instructors can offer their courses to students in the hopes of reaching an even wider audience.  While these college courses will not count for credit they do seem to be in demand perhaps because they shorten the distance between desire to learn and the actual learning.

The Disruption: As with Straighterline an important advantage of Udacity is that it allows easy access to organized knowledge.  This is an important, and often overlooked, benefit to students.  Whatever advantages there are to enrolling in regular college courses one thing is clear, it is not an easy process.  There are enrollment forms to fill out, financial aid forms to fill out, lines to wait in, advisors to see, signatures to obtain for permission to enroll in courses, prerequisite to fulfill to enroll in courses.  The time lag between wanting to enroll and starting is quite lengthy.  This was no big deal when it was the only way to get organized knowledge.  But now, the process of gaining access to great scholars presenting organized knowledge is mere minutes.  With websites like Udemy you can sign up with your Facebook account or if you don't have one you can sign up with e-mail, browse the courses, and enroll.   

Pearson:  But, what about accreditation?  What about getting a formal college degree?  Well, it won't be long before colleges aren't the only game in town for this either.  Recent developments in the UK will certainly set the precedent for change.  The textbook publisher Pearson is now able to offer degrees of its own in the UK.  If their venture is a success it will certainly inspire others to petition to do this and it will certainly spread to other countries.

The Disruption:  As many critics have been pointing out, free access to free knowledge means little if students can't get a degree from a fully accredited institution of higher learning.  So, college still remains the gateway.  But, this may not last.  As this article in the Atlantic Monthly asks, "Can control of credentialing last for long without control of knowledge?"  With free access to free knowledge, colleges are now essentially selling a credential.  But, what happens when colleges no longer have a monopoly on offering credentials, certificates, and degrees?  When employers begin to recognize the value of other alternatives, where does this leave colleges and universities?

Mozilla's Open Badges Project:  Still in its infancy, this project hopes to facilitate a system of badges to allow individuals who are learning new skills (be it from a college, university, or one of the other platforms mentioned above) to earn badges they can display to show prospective employers and clients what their qualifications and credentials are.  

The Disruption:  Once developed this platform will essentially render formal college degrees largely irrelevant for many, many fields of study.  With the buy-in of employers and others in a position to hire, this will allow personalized education to flourish because it will formalize credit without the complications and expense usually associated with earning a degree.  Additionally, once a system of badges is in place it will allow platforms which provide free learning resources such as iTunesU, Zero Tuition College, and DIY U, to gain traction because the courses they offer can count towards badges.

Conclusion: Certainly for the foreseeable future many academic degrees will remain necessary and therefore safe from major disruption.  Medical degrees may be the most immune from disruption but many other formalized professions could transition with little difficulty to a system of personalized education and the use of independent credentials and badges to document skill and mastery requirements.  After all, even now you can become a CPA by silly passing the exam.  Granted a college degree in accounting is a good preparation for this exam but it is not required.  Imagine when it becomes a matter of earning the required number of badges to sit for the CPA exam.  Earning these badges can be done through a combination of resources including but not limited to taking courses through Straighterline, Udemy, iTunesU, and other resources I have not mentioned here.  How will these changes affect higher education?  What will be the reaction of those in higher education now to these disruptions?  I'll consider some of these in my next post.    



Check out College for America, which offers an associate's degree for what you know and from one to three low cost online semesters through Southern New Hampshire University. Register that "what you know" is key and critical, but not a barrier to one who has worked in real life situations.

Also check out Manchester Bidwell, which offers career education linked with career employers, and delivers a job rather than a degree, as well as having many sites already beyon their pilot stage.

Most universities have priced themselves out of their social mission. And that, compounded with technology, easy access to information, and credible partnerships with technical employers, spells their impending transitions in red.

Such transitions require a substantial review of options like "Early College High School," and revisions to the "seat time" formulae for secondary and post-secondary credit. Keep in mind that most of what we think of as "traditional universities" only invented a four year sequence in the 20th century; that "high school" now only rarely integrates career education; and that more people are working younger and, if they're smart, building credentials toward a career that may or may not rely on college or grad school.


You raise an interesting point. The platforms you mention that offer education for the same demographic that attend community colleges indeed threaten formal college degrees, but does that mean higher education is being threatened as well? If these platforms, like Straighterline, have coursework that will transfer and be accepted by certain colleges, is that coursework not of the same quality? For me, part of higher education means availability. You describe Straighterline as something that allows students to "streamline their college career with...more ease and less expense." A program that offers quality education and integrates with other colleges seems like an excellent example of higher education, not a disruption.

You repeated Atlantic Monthly's question of "Can control of credentialling last for long without control of knowledge?" It's true that with information available for free, colleges are essentially selling credentials and degrees. And if more and more businesses accept as employees people who have studied under cheaper online courses, the place of colleges and universities in education may not be as stable as it is today. But, again, I ask: are these platforms not tools of higher education? Of course, universities may still provide some elements to education that online courses have not yet covered, but I do not think that makes them invaluable tools of higher education in every field. 

The listed programs bear much resemblece to MOOCs. It was speculated that some MOOCs may offer credits of completion compatible with college degrees in the future. If that is the case, will they be disruptions as well?