What will render colleges obsolete?

Part three of our series Examining Higher Education

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.

Why there hasn’t been much change? What ingredients are 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”. But there is more to the bundle than just classes. Two other parts of it are as essential as classes themselves. They are the social experience and the badge. And the truth is that, so far, these two have not been implemented well enough by “competitors” to colleges.

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 or so 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, say, a Linear Algebra exam. They are actual projects, things out there in the real 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 competition to famous universities. In this category, the Thiel Fellowship and the Y Combinator come to mind.

From what I can tell from afar, 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:

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.

Update — 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.

Update — June 2021

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September 2018

Examining Higher Education

Series of essays deconstructing what higher education is really all about, and how its future might look like:

  1. Famous colleges are special clubs
  2. The feedback loop that makes universities special
  3. What will render colleges obsolete? · Here