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Even casual iTunes™ users know about iTunesU™, the increasingly rich video-taped course offerings from universities as great as Stanford and Oxford and as humble as the dozens of community colleges and adult education programs that make their curricula available for free downloading. I should have seen it coming in the spring of 2001 when Charles Vest – then president of MIT – paid me a visit at HP to tell me of his plans to make MIT’s entire course catalog available for download on the internet, but I was not thinking much about Higher Education as a market in those days.

Things changed in late 2002 when I started to draw a paycheck from a university and began to think hard about the fate of American colleges and universities in the 21st century.  What Chuck Vest predicted one afternoon in my Palo Alto office is now being played out in what I believe is the next economic bubble.  This is quite literally the collision of that half of the earth’s population that has in the last decade joined the free market economy with the inwardly focused world of  Americah higher education, which – unless there are some dramatic changes – is destined to be a marginalized bystander to events that it is ill-equipped to understand.  Here is the stark reality: enhanced technology means that the market for higher education now has many suppliers, and the  hundreds of millions of people who all of a sudden want a university education also find that they have abundant choices, often with lower cost and high quality.    In any market with abundant choices, the winners are inevitably those with compelling brands, price, or value.  There are about 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the US, and, except for the handful (less than a hundred) who have global brands, most of them have not figured out how to deliver their value at an acceptable price.  In fact, an alarming large number of them cannot even articulate their value to the world that is rushing toward them.  That spells trouble. I will have much more to say about WWC and higher education in later posts.

I am working on a book on this topic so these problems are much on my mind these days, but an email message from a colleague prompted me write that there may be a series of smaller collisions rather than a single cataclysm.

There is a lot of criticism about the quality of iTunesU lectures and online courses.  Some criticism can be dismissed as an “innovator’s dilemma” confusion of the current state  — much of it admittedly primitive – of the technology with its disruptive power.  I find this criticism easy to dismiss because you can see quality of online instruction improving month by month.  Never underestimate the power of technology curves.  The more difficult question is how exactly the technology can replace a skilled human mentor who has ability to interact directly with her students.

Then two e-mails from my friend Dick Lipton showed up.  “Hit 7,000 page views today!” said the first one.  A few hours later: “We were number 20 on WordPress!”  That’s 20 out of roughly 3 million WordPress posts.  Dick is a world-class computational theorist, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and one of the best teachers I have ever known.  He is a star.  He has been blogging pure math for the last year at a website called “G̈ödel’s Lost Letter¨.  Not exactly the stuff you would expect to be in the top  .0007% of all of those posts about Michael Jackson, Death Panels, and the 2016 Olympics.  His latest series “Reasons for Believing P = NP” has been exceptionally popular, drawing hundreds of comments from experts, novices, interested amateurs, and a few cranks.  We have been collaborators for many years. Our offices used to share a common wall.  I know Dick’s voice when he is engaged with his students.  It has a distinctive rhythm and is louder when he is trying to extract a missing argument from a reluctant pupil.  It was the voice I heard when I read his blog, and as I thought about his 7,000 viewers it occurred to me that Dick’s seminar was no longer 10 or 15 graduate students crowded around a white board.  This is not an on-line lecture or an iTunes™ videos. I thought, “This is what the teacher-mentor relationship is like when the technology enables a classroom of 7,000 students.”  When there are abundant choices, students will choose this.