How will higher education be disrupted? What will replace it?

06 Apr
Higher education is ripe for disruption and all pointers indicate that it will begin to make a significant impact starting 2012. I believe that the scale of this ‘once in a hundred year’ disruption will emulate the industrial revolution of the late 1700s where people just walked off the farm and into the factories. This disruption where people will simply walk out of the old education paradigm and into the new, is due to two key developments:
  1. The growing failure of the existing higher education system to efficiently and effectively prepare people for employment due the deteriorating cost/benefit ratios, lack of industry currency/relevance and inability to keep pace with the fast developing skill sets required to compete for jobs in a global economy. In short, our existing higher education system was designed for an industrial age past and has not and can not adapt fast enough to meet the needs of the present competitive global/information age.
  2. The growing potential of internet technology and it’s applications to address most of the existing higher educational problems. In short, if the internet is ‘a solution in search of a problem’ then I would argue that higher education is the key candidate for ‘the problem’.
Research and higher education
As I see it, the existing higher education system is focused on two key areas: research and preparing people for employment. I see higher education research being disrupted by internet technologies in areas such as:
  • the speed to market and scope of online publishing and peer review
  • the revolutionary enhancement of communication channels that makes national and international online research collaboration a real time possibility
  • the easy online access to human and sophisticated machine translator resources that allows fast-track cross cultural sharing of research findings both current and past.
  • the possibility of international and alternate research funding options from industries and philanthropist brought about by the global and at times viral exposure of successful research teams.
While I’m sure the research focus of higher education will be disrupted significantly, I also see that research is likely to still remain the core activity of those higher education institutions that survive the ‘creative disruption’ of the new internet technologies being currently applied to higher education.
Employment preparation and higher education
I believe the greatest disruption in higher education will occur in the area of preparing people for employment and it is here that existing higher education institutions face the complete loss of their market share.
As Thomas Frey and the researchers/futurists at the Da Vinci Institute state in their report The Future of Education – “The pace of change mandates that we produce a faster, smarter, better grade of human being. Current (education) systems are preventing that from happening”.

Preparing people for employment via the higher education system involves three broad components:

  1. Content
  2. Mastery
  3. Accreditation

If we look at the existing process in each component, the current problems with each component and the potential disruption that is happening and likely to continue, we should be able to form a view of what a disrupted higher education system might look like in relation to preparing people for employment.

As Albert Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  
We need a new way of thinking about higher education in relation to preparing people for employment. To this end I see a disrupted higher education system looking like this:
  • Digital aps and content downloads replacing printed textbooks
  • Industry experts working collaboratively online to provide the bulk of educational content in preparing people for employment
  • Industry taking ownership of training and accrediting of workplace skills
  • Course content to focus on 21st century competencies not on the specializations of an industrial age past


  • The rise of the global  ‘best in class’ to teach each topic for an appropriate group of learners
  • the return to an apprenticeship model of learning from current industry practitioners and away from the lecture/student one
  • the rise and rise of the teacherpreneur who leaves the educational institution and connects directly with learners and profits significantly from the move
  • a teacher qualification will be redefined as any person that can attract and keep a group of learners learning
  • the learner and teacher roles will rotate as we benefit from and then share our higher education experience


  • new higher education accreditation models will emerge mostly led by industry
  • accreditation will be based on demonstrated current competency
  • educational startups will continually play a teaching and accrediting role in the fast evolving global economy

Below are the details and rationale I used to reach the conclusions listed above:


  • Currently the vast amount of content in higher education is sourced from texbooks. Textbooks take time to write, time to distribute and time to revise and they follow an expensive production and distribution model. In a fast changing global economy, textbooks are out of date at launch whereas the internet now provides a low cost production and distribution model that can replace the old model. So, I believe that a disrupted higher education system will replace the current printed textbook with digital Aps and downloads that are being constantly updated and revised in real time as changes occur in the global economy. Apple, Boundless Learning and Bench Prep are already busy doing just that.
  • Newsmedia, before it was disrupted, only published content produced by professional journalists. Internet blogging changed all that. Currently published educational content is produced primarily by professional writers, teachers and academics. The internet that made everyone a journalist will soon make everyone a teacher. So I believe that content in the disrupted higher education system will be produced and distributed on the internet by industry experts which will be curated by knowledgeable skill sharers and devoured by the self-directed learners. Khan Academy has been a shining light in this regard for years.
  • The economics of scalability in the existing higher educational delivery and textbook content mediums creates a bias towards generic content being delivered in broad appeal courses. This content and delivery approach is at odds with industry that requires a more contextualized and industry applicable learning outcome for its entry level employees. I believe that the low cost in production and delivery of industry contextualized learning, made possible by the internet, will see industry take the lead role from institutions in the disrupted higher education system in relation to preparing people for employment. Ogilvy & Mather, one of the largest marketing communications companies in the world, is an early example of this new approach with their series of classes to the public through Skillshare.
  • Our current educational content is designed for an industrial age past championed by Adam Smith, who in 1776 outlined in his article “Inquiry into nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations”, the concept that nation building is best performed by people, trained for and performing specialized tasks. (Accountants, Lawyers, Architects, Engineers, Teachers etc). This approach is no longer appropriate in a competitive, fast-changing, global information age where we need neo-renaissance people unfretted by the outdated and restrictive dimensions of specialization and who develop a wide range of talents or interests. The disrupted higher education system will teach 21st century competencies in problem solving abilities, critical thinking ability that can discern ‘fact from fiction’, the ability to adapt (un-learn & re-learn), creative and innovative abilities, effective communication, collaboration ability, ICT Literacy, initiative & self-direction, social & cross-cultural skills as the US based Partnership for 21st Century Skills has been promoting for years.


  • Mastery in higher education has been the specific domain of professional teachers within localized institutions for much of the last 100 years. The internet is disrupting this model in two key ways: (1) we can now all learn from the best on the planet not just the best teacher available in the local area and (2) armed with so much available internet content, any teacher/tutor can now deliver world class learning to students any where in the world. So an internet disrupted higher education system will remove the physical barrier of location in regards to learning from the best on planet. MITs Open Courseware Project is a great example of this world class sharing of resources.
  • While most educators still hold to the view that a teacher/tutor plays a significant role in the mastery process, these teacher/tutors in the existing higher education model have become hamstrung by institutional policies demanding higher academic qualifications more designed to protect the institution’s reputation than promote learning. Each year devoted to personal academic advancement and cloistered within institutions makes the teacher less capable of imparting relevant and current industry best practice and skills that prepare people for employment. So a disrupted higher education system will see people being taught more by industry practitioners who are still actively engaged in industry. Places like E[nstitute] and are great examples of higher education being taught by industry practitioners in a more apprenticeship style model than a leacturer/student one.
  • Further frustrating the passionate teacher in higher education has been the politically motivated directives of elite government policy makers who hold significant sway over the higher education process with their control over the money flow. This has led to layer upon layer of compliance requirements that further alienates the current higher education teacher from their craft, the industry and their students. The passionate (frustrated) teachers are beginning to discover that they can excel in their craft and find fulfillment in their passion by connecting directly with students via the internet. Their already proven reputation combined with a pent up global demand for learning and coupled with the internet and its applications means they no longer need the institutions to practice their craft nor are they beholden to the funds/policies of the political elite. So a disrupted higher education system will see the rise and rise of the teacherpreneur who will profit from their craft with more freedom and financial reward as Professors David Evans and Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) have demonstrated so comprehensively.
  • The current system credentials teachers based on government/institution criteria that excludes from the higher education system a vast number of people perfectly capable of transferring relevant work skills and knowledge to others. Sites like Quora are demonstrating that acceptable qualification as a teacher is in your ability to attract and keep a following of learners. These learners are not attracted by your teaching qualifications but by your ability to communicate clear, appropriate and relevant answers to the learner’s questions. So a disrupted higher education system will redefine the concept of teacher qualifications.
  • Adding to mastery in higher education will be massive influx of peer to peer skill shares who will teach what they know. A disrupted higher education system will rotate the teacher/student relationship as we learn from each other and teach what we have learned and we learn from those who teach. Codecademy and Skillshare are great examples of this new model in work skill learning.


  • Currently educational institutions are the gatekeepers of accreditation. But their accreditation is only valid in an employment sense if it secures an at-level job for those that it accredits. Evidence is mounting high that an educational institution accreditation is not translating into at-level jobs because employers hire people with competency not just ‘bits of paper’ and competency is near impossible from educational institutions with issues that I have outlined previously. Many of the professions like accounting have always managed their own accreditation. Expect in a disrupted higher education system for the vast majority of industries to follow suit and set their own accreditation learning and standards.
  • Accreditation in the current higher education system is a once gained rarely revisited qualification. In a fast-changing, globally competitive world demonstrated current competency is the key to getting and keeping jobs. Relying on a higher education qualification gained even 5 years ago is poor evidence of this. How much poorer is the evidence from a higher education qualification completed 10, 15 or 20 years ago? A disrupted higher education system will develop a qualification framework based on demonstrated current competency. Successful Elance and Odesk contractors prove their knowledge by taking tests as sites like Smarterer provide an authentic way to show what people know.
  • A large part of current higher education accreditation is not assessing 21st century skills (as mentioned previously) nor is it adapting its curriculum fast enough to teach and assess the emerging skills that are the center piece of job requirements in the global digital information economy. As mentioned previously, it’s the very structure of existing educational institutions and their dependence of inherently slow moving government policy makers that ensures that educational institutions in the existing model will always be in a constant catch-up mode. For this reason, a disrupted higher education system will see these 21st century cutting edge skills being taught and assessed by educational startups that exist outside of the existing higher education accreditation system. The badges system being promoted by Mozilla may emerge as the new accreditation system for these skills.

Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “How will higher education be disrupted? What will replace it?

  1. Pingback: Quora
  2. Hao Chen

    April 12, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Peter, excellent piece! You hit the nail on the head. My mind can’t even begin to imagine what the collision of so many slow hunch ideas will lead us to.


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