Mortar is Messy: Online Tech Fills in the Higher Ed Brick Walls

Morgan Richards, a 31-year-old mother of three, is a trendsetter in her pursuit of a university degree. Richards stumbled upon the Global Freshman Academy, a mash-up between Arizona State University (ASU) and edX, which is one of the massive open online content (MOOC) providers. Her interest piqued when she discovered she could take her whole freshman year of university credit on the platform, pay for the courses only after successfully passing them at $200 a credit hour, and transfer all accredited course hours to ASU. In other words: she could get one year of her undergraduate degree at a bargain basement price from any location on the planet without any sacrifices.

Richards tells me, "I see friends that are drowning in student debt and these 18 and 19-year-olds-they just don't think about that. I think students need to consider this type of option because it gives them the flexibility to be able to work or enjoy their life and travel without the massive amounts of student debt and they are still getting the same classes."

The classes Richards has taken within the edX Global Freshman Academy have exceeded all her expectations. Her first class, Human Evolution, was led by ASU professor and paleoanthropologist Don Johansson who is the man behind the discovery of Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old human ancestor fossil in Ethiopia. "The course was amazing," says Richards. "You know when you're watching something on TV and you just can't get up? That class was like that for me."

The push towards recognizing a larger allotment of MOOC courses in a credit-bearing direction is increasing. OpenClassrooms, a large French MOOC, just released a four year degree on their platform that is recognized by the French State and Topica Edtech Group of South East Asia released a partnership agreement with Coursera that will allow Vinh University in Vietnam to become one of the first educational institutes to recognize credits from any of Coursera's 1,800 MOOC offerings.

The digital tools for providing a quality education online are quickly ramping up thanks in no small part to the education technology sector securing $6.54 billion of investment in 2015. This financial outlay is trying like heck to figure out ways to untangle the complexity, cost, and, ultimately, the utility of higher education.

In an applaudable fashion, these new market entrants are unraveling some of the burdens of higher education while also gaining an early mover advantage in the education marketplace. Bob Daugherty, executive dean of the Forbes School of Business, tells me, "I think Coursera has the potential to really take over the market below the top 100 schools. I think their ability to package that to some accredited or certificate diploma and offer that to the rest of the world at a very different price point is going to fundamentally change the way we think about colleges and universities. That is where the future of education will ultimately come from."

It appears that the free market and technological innovation will be the solution to correct some of the financial burdens of higher education. Yet there will be tradeoffs. Daugherty poses the dilemma associated with spiraling loan debt and says, "The dirty secret in Washington is the average interest rate on a student loan is about 6% so if we lend those people over there $1.2 trillion at 6% interest they would be sending us about $70 billion a year in interest. $70 billion a year coming into Washington, D.C. They might stand up and say 'oh this is awful but keep sending the dough because we're spending it like drunken sailors.' Honestly, it's a disincentive for them to actually fix the problem."

Luckily, education's recalibration has a lot to do with private market pioneers envisioning the space in a new manner. Bill Gates showed his support for new digital entrants into the higher education market during his keynote speech at during the April 2016 ASU+GSV Education Summit and said, "Right now our opportunity is to think about the classroom and how we all get engaged in making it better for the students, a place they want to be, making their learning experience every bit as engaging as all the other digital experiences they have. At the end of the day, I believe success will come to the innovators who focus on these new needs, who look at this new majority, who look at why kids are dropping out now, why costs are going up."

Gates is clearly a proponent of ratcheting up the educational merit with digital innovation. Yet, there is a thorn in the side of digital innovators: accreditation.

Anant Argwal, CEO of edX and professor at MIT, tells me, "Accreditation completely inhibits education. The closest example I can find to that is taxi cab medallions. The medallion is the currency of the taxi cab industry. The inability for a common innovator to get ahold of a taxi cab medallion makes it hard for innovators to come in. In a similar way, credit is the gold coin of the academic realm. It is controlled by certain agencies and it is very hard to foster innovation without it."

Gunnar Counselman, CEO of Fidelis Education, expands on accreditation's early foundation in US education and tells me, "If you think what accreditation is: the government gave accreditors the power to be the watcher's watcher when the GI Bill was being abused like crazy in 1948. Somebody has got to make sure these things are good--and so they gave the power to the accreditation agencies."

One person with accreditation power is Barbara Bittingham, president of New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), an accreditation agency. Bittingham tells me that there is a need for a strong accreditation authority and says, "Right now, the government spends $150 billion of taxpayer money on the federal financial aid portion of higher education, not the research component. And that is a lot of money. It is only natural that there is an increased expectation for the role of accreditation for, in the words of the Higher Education Act, 'the reliable authority as to the quality of education.'"

Perhaps to the chagrin of accrediting bodies, MOOCs are getting more adventurous at finding pathways into the degree process and around existing accreditation hurdles. Pham Minh Tuan, CEO of Topica EdTech Group in Vietnam, which received early funding from the Gates Foundation, talks about his group's recent partnership with Coursera and says, "We are solving the credit recognition problem for them. They have been struggling to get accreditation. We are one of the first in Asia to give them full-credit recognition." Tuan outlines the mutually beneficial relationship between his Topica EdTech Group and Coursera and says, "Since we have been working with the local universities for eight years now, and we have their trust in terms of bringing academic quality to the table, and Coursera has the trust because they are working through us. We are connecting the two sides."

Although, globally, MOOCs are creating full degree pathways, it appears for the near term the US will stay at a partial model for MOOC degree completion. Pierre Dubuc, CEO of OpenClassrooms, the largest MOOC in France feels the US shores can evolve further and says, "The Global Freshman Academy serves 25% of the educational experience and that is noteworthy -but they didn't create a fully online degree and I think it is because they are trying to innovate on their current business models. They are doing it halfway but not completely because they are afraid of breaking things."

Perhaps, like Dubuc alludes, the US and by association their educational accreditors are rightfully more cautious of putting all the poker chips in on the future of MOOCs symbiotic relationship with higher education institutions--likely because they have more to lose. And, maybe global markets have significant reasons for the quicker acceptance on their shores. Regardless of the national buy-in, this whole conversation would not have happened a few short years ago. Higher education's evolution is taking a stance that is clearly future leaning. If online technology continues to fill in the gaps within our brick and mortar higher education model, education at its core will continue its pursuit to find a new normal. And, perhaps, with a bit of luck, we can win big and boost relevance, engagement and completion rates while simultaneously decreasing our financial outlay. Regardless of our technological leaning we can all agree those assets are merit worthy.