An Avalanche is Coming to Education … But When? (Sooner than you think.)

Higher education is a towering glacier-covered mountain that has been unchanging and immovable for more than a thousand years, but cracks and fissures visible to keen observers portend a massive avalanche. So says Saad Rizvi, former SVP for Efficacy at global education powerhouse Pearson, who points to rapid developments in online education, adaptive learning, ubiquitous access, and the disruptive economics of the Internet as agents of change. At the Real Ventures Ed Tech Review on September 4, Rizvi reckoned that when the avalanche hits, most of the 6,000 colleges and universities in North America will collapse into only five or six “mega universities” with millions of students. When will the avalanche occur? “I thought it might be this year,” said Rizvi.

The counterpoint came from Ollivier Dyens, Deputy Provost of McGill University and an accomplished author, poet and artist. Universities are more than content delivery systems: they are beehives of activity within their communities; they conduct fundamental research into every field of human endeavor; and they provide students with an experience that is both academic and social. At their core, claimed Dyens, universities are a protected habitat where students and faculty are free to explore profound ideas and reflect deeply on subjects that are important but perhaps not urgent. Yes, concluded Professor Dyens, an avalanche is coming and it will indeed be calamitous, but it is probably fifty or a hundred years away.

So which is it – 2015 or 2115? I believe the answer is less than twenty years. By 2035, the avalanche will be behind us (or under us) and a new paradigm of education – both K12 and “higher ed” – will be firmly established. Skiers and snowboarders will be back on slopes, as it were. Here’s why:

First, the economics of education today are unsustainable. In North America during the past decade, the cost of higher education has risen dramatically faster than even the cost of healthcare. K12 public education is the single largest budget item in every US state. At the same time, educational efficacy as measured by employment and critical thinking skills is flat to declining. And against this backdrop come high quality alternatives that are low cost or free: the world’s finest teachers making their lectures available online for free; flipped classrooms and blended learning environments reducing facility and instructor costs; and free and freemium learning apps adapting to the needs of individual learners. Had the global economy continued its five year slump rather than recovering in 2013, Mr. Rizvi may well have been right about 2014 as the year of the avalanche. Instead, the global economic recovery has provided the status quo with a brief reprieve from the inevitable.

Second, we live in an age of continuous disruptive change, thanks to the Internet and the networks and devices that serve as our portals into it. A few facts about ten years ago: Google had been public for less than one month; there was no iPhone, no YouTube, no Facebook, no Uber or Airbnb, no “cloud” to speak of; little or no GPS navigation. It was considered creepy to date online. Digital disruption is not just about high velocity, it’s about high acceleration: the rate of change itself is becoming faster. The field of education cannot withstand the G-forces of the world around it.

Third, those who will be educated in the next twenty years are digital natives. The audience at the Ed Tech Review in Notman House was entirely digital immigrants, born in the last millennium and shaped by traditional images of college. Today’s elementary school students are at one with tablets and smartphones. They see sharpening pencils and carrying textbooks in their overloaded backpacks as irrelevant and annoying. The consumers of education will accept nothing less than a digital overhaul.

What becomes of the college experience and the protected habitat for deep thinking? I don’t know, and I’m saddened to see these features of today’s educational paradigm on the endangered species list. But intellectual curiosity and deep reflection were not created by universities; it is because humans intrinsically have such inclinations that universities were created in the first place. I am certain that we will find new habitats for these essential pursuits in the post-avalanche world.

Mark McDowell, Real Ventures