What will render colleges obsolete?
If we were to see glimpses of the future of higher education, what are the initiatives to keep an eye on?
In comparison to media and commerce, higher education has seen little change due to new technologies over recent decades. It is not to say that nothing has changed, of course. Classes, for example, have been widely available on the internet for many years now. Anyone can watch a true master class on any subject for free on YouTube today. But, despite the abundance of high-quality content online, the “college industry”, in general, doesn’t seem to have changed much.
What ingredients have been missing?
It is not a coincidence that colleges have endured for so long. They take advantage of a strong feedback loop that strengthens their position in society.
I believe classes belong to the content portion of the “college bundle”. There are two other parts that are highly relevant: the social experience and the badge. These two portions have not been implemented well enough by new initiatives.
Take Coursera, for example. Their badges — which are, basically, certificates for LinkedIn profiles — just aren’t compelling enough. It could be a matter of time before they start to become more relevant, but I am not bullish. I think we need more creative attempts to reinvent both the social experience and the badge.
Online-first badges are emerging in Computer Science
Interesting new badges based out of Computer Science have emerged in the last ~10 years. Some examples are: Kaggle, HackerRank, GitHub, and Stack Overflow. These are communities open for anyone to join that offer leaderboards where top-ranked participants get rewarded for their achievements. They are twists to the classic college badge.
For starters, because these initiatives are online and software-based, their “funnel” of applicants is wide open. Being permissionless and highly scalable makes it possible for the “best” to rise from anywhere in the world. (Contrast that with the classical admission committees, which have intrinsic scale limitations and are known for their biases.)
Secondly, achievements are more legible. It is much easier to verify if the holder of a certain badge really knows his stuff by looking at his code (already publicly available on, say, GitHub). Another advantage of these achievements is that they are not an A in a given Linear Algebra exam. They are actual projects, things out there in the world.
Innovating on the social experiences is key
There are other initiatives where the filtering process still relies on centralized committees, but that nevertheless seem very worthy endeavors. In this category, the Thiel Fellowship and the Y Combinator come to mind.
From what I can tell from far outside, these two do seem to have more powerful feedback loops than the “mere” online badges. They do feel like fully-featured clubs themselves. I guess that might be the case because:
They offer deeper social experiences for participants (that likely result in stronger networks)
They may do a better job in the promoting their brand across society (beyond just a community of, say, developers). They often get the media to talk about their members; have the members to proactively shout out to the world that they have that badge; get high-profile people to endorse them and their members; etc.
To me, it does feel like the next generation of “education clubs” will combine it all. Cast the net wide open in an online and highly scalable way, while also allowing for meaningful social experiences. And then, over time, build a strong brand.
The new kid on the block, September 2018
After first writing this piece, I have come across Pioneer. They seem to be working on the exact problem of creating a new kind of club. Most of it is online and software-based but they are also being very thoughtful about the social experience, brand and network dimensions. It seems like a fantastic initiative, one that I am already cheering for.
Another interesting initiative, June 2021
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