Archived: “MOOC Invasion”

Wanted: CEO Higher Ed.

University presidents need to compete like corporate CEOs online and off to create a new sustainable business model for an endangered category.

Higher education does not face near-term extinction, but the whole higher education category is now drastically evolving at an accelerated pace and some colleges and universities with enlightened leadership will flourish. Others will not survive, somewhere Darwin is smiling.

When Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller founded Coursera the higher education planet as we now know it had just encountered the beginning of its ice age. Coursera’s launch, sandwiched between the start of the online for-profit education company Udacity, by another former Stanford professor and edX, a non-profit initiative introduced by a coalition of premier universities, signaled an irreversible evolution in education.

College has been disintermediated.

Well, it’s about time. In 1999 Harvard Business School Press published a book—an elaboration of a widely lauded article in the HBR—titled: Blown to Bits. The book described “how the new economics of information transforms strategy.” They termed this disintermediation.

In the book the authors describe “how the spread of connectivity and common standards is redefining the information channels that link businesses with their customers, suppliers, and employees. Increasingly, your customers will have rich access to a universe of alternatives, your suppliers will exploit direct access to your customers, and your competitors will pick off the most profitable parts of your value chain. Your competitive advantage is up for grabs.”

True to form, and like clockwork, the higher education space is almost always plodding 20 years behind commercial categories, and damn proud of that, thank you very much. In higher education “early adopter” is a generational term, not a seasonal one.

But the time has come. Online education has now enveloped the best of the world’s universities in an arms race they are all ill-equipped to wage. Suddenly the University of Phoenix and Johns Hopkins University share something in common. This is excellent news for populations of people seeking truth and learning. This is unsettling for those universities whose reputation as selective and exclusive has been their greatest strategic asset, in essence their brand equity. For many, this means that the universities need hired guns to manage the unseemly business of marketing and branding, so says a recent Wall Street Journal article. Apparently universities are seeing the light and hiring Chief Marketing Officers hand over fist.

Alas, a CMO without a CEO is itself an endangered species as the article indicates.

All is not lost. It turns out that there are very smart people at these business fossils we call universities. The leaders of many of these institutions know what they must do: disintermediate themselves. University presidents have to become hands-on CEOs of the business and evangelists of a new reality. The boss has to make professors more available to undergraduate students, make all administrators, faculty and students more available to the university’s neighbors, make staff and alumni more available to other alumni and make information more available to prospective scholars and their parents. The measure of the power of higher education has always been a direct correlation to the enduring strength and connectedness of its communities. New world CEOs already know this.

Faculty members know this; professors have always taken time from teaching to build communities of influence through their publishing. Now universities as institutions have to grasp this idea—building community is job one. Star faculty members will soon all be available to any scholar who can find them around the world, what the CEO of the university has to reinforce is that the power of a university or college community well-tended is without peer and cannot be supplanted.

From a culture of engaged community comes greater affinity, philanthropy, opportunity, support and loyalty. For many colleges and universities this is the missing link, the corner office needs a new age CEO and the evolutionary clock is ticking.



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