The Future of Education: Disruption

January 9, 2020

Part 1 on the series on how education is evolving in today's world

No industry is immune to digital disruption. Taxis were once the primary means of comfortable, air-conditioned transport that allowed us to avoid braving the rush hour subway crowd.


Commercial hotels were once the primary means of accommodation whenever we travelled. Today, thanks to Uber and Airbnb, we have alternative options.

The higher education sector is no different. 

Too slow to evolve

One of the main reasons why alternative education providers are growing in popularity is because technology is causing employers to change their job requirements faster than the education system can adapt.

In other words, students aren’t graduating with the new skills that companies require.

So why are education institutions not able to keep up with the rapid changes? The reasons could be different for every university. There could be budget constraints, a lack of foresight by the leadership, a lack of government support, or simply because there is resistance to change. After all, change is always uncomfortable. And large organizations such as universities are notoriously slow to change because there are just too many moving parts involved.

Much of what children learn in schools today was designed for the era of paper-and-pencil” - Mitchel Resnick, MIT Professor

We came across a March 2017 report by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia which emphasised that the current education system needs to change if students are to stay relevant in the future.

“Young people need different skill sets to what is taught in the traditional curriculum if they are to thrive in high-tech, global, competitive job markets,” wrote Megan O’Connell, the report’s co-author. “Our basic education model hasn’t grown with the broader economy. Many young people are being left behind and without significant change, we can expect to see more missing out in the future.” The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) has sung the same tune. In its report, The New Work Order, the foundation predicts that half of the students in the country today are preparing themselves for careers that will become irrelevant because of technological advancement and automation, while 60 per cent of young people are being trained in roles that would be “radically affected by automation” within the next 15 years.

The skills needed to work today change so fast that no education system can keep up with the constant need to reinvent how we work and live together” - Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director of Science Gallery International

The world of MOOCs

Today, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have disrupted the higher education sector, offering us a means to education that is considerably cheaper than going to a conventional university. Students don’t need to “go” to university— they can simply learn online from wherever they are. 

Cost is a major factor. According to research done by Accenture, 74 per cent of students surveyed had considered alternatives to a university degree because of school fees. In a 2016 research report by Aviva titled Generation Regret, more than a third of UK graduates surveyed said that they had regretted going to university because of the student debt they had incurred.

This issue with costs is one of the main reasons why MOOCs have gained popularity. In 2011, more than 160,000 people from around the world jumped at the opportunity to undergo a free online course on artificial intelligence which was offered by the prestigious Stanford University in California. Because, hey, who doesn’t love a freebie?

The next year, Sebastian Thrun, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford, set up Udacity, a startup that provides free MOOCs. Just a few months later, two other Stanford professors established a similar company called Coursera. Today, the MOOC scene is dominated by these two companies as well as others like edX, a joint venture by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Another reason why MOOCs work is because they offer the chance for people to learn specific skills and receive “just-in-time training” without having to physically attend school. Want to learn C++ Programming? There are MOOCs for that. Interested in learning about how you can optimize performance for SQL-based applications? There’s also a MOOC for that.

The MOOC scene is like an a la carte menu. You pick the dishes you want to eat.

Going to university, on the other hand, doesn’t give you this option. You must order the set menu, even if you don’t particularly fancy half the dishes on it. And then there’s the aspect of time—why spend years attempting to complete a degree when you can spend just a fraction of the time to attain a specific skill you require?

These benefits of MOOCs have already caught the eyes of corporations. According to statistics by eLearning Industry, the number of companies leveraging MOOCs to train their staff will grow in the following years. It also argues that this educational approach is highly promising, considering how there is a global skills gap, especially in the tech industries, that urgently needs to be bridged.

MOOCs have already been embraced by many major organizations—they include Google, Yahoo, McAfee, Microsoft and Linux—that are using these courses to train their current employees. Global technology research company Technavio expects the global MOOC market to have a compound annual growth rate of more than 46 per cent between 2015 and 2019, resulting in a market worth in excess of $7 billion. Technavio’s report listed five factors behind this phenomenon: the rising cost of education, increased demand for distance learning, an active adoption of digital software, a rise in adoption of tablets and the demand for skills development across industries.

Novel, but not quite perfect

Wait, but if MOOCs are so popular these days, why aren’t universities shutting down one after the other?

Here are some of the main factors we have uncovered:

  • Unlike universities degrees, many MOOCs aren’t recognised by employers. What’s the point of undertaking a course if the hiring manager is going to say: “I’ve never heard of that course before. Are you trying to pull a fast one?"
  • Since there is little or no engagement with a teacher, a person undertaking a MOOC isn’t compelled to follow through on his or her learning. As such, completion rates for MOOCs are dismal
  • We learn better in a social environment because it’s much more engaging. However, there is zero to little human interaction involved in MOOCs
  • Conventional degrees are still more prestigious. Sorry, what? Are you saying you are a qualified coder because you took an online course? Hold my beer. I graduated from MIT

Realising that too many MOOC participants were not completing the courses, Udacity’s founders decided to do a bit of a switcheroo a few years ago. Instead of offering just MOOCs, the platform now is focused more on supplying nano degrees, which the company describes as “online educational offering designed to equip you with the skills you need to land the job you want”.

These unique degrees require a much shorter time to complete and cost a fraction of conventional programs. 

Most importantly, they are endorsed by employers. 

And it’s not just MOOCs that are disrupting the educational sector. These days, there are also tuition-free universities and free MBAs programmes. Take for instance the University of the People, which labels itself as the world’s first tuition-free university. Students only need to pay a modest $60 application fee as well as a $100 assessment fee per undergraduate course completed ($200 for MBA courses).

According to the university, “an associate’s degree can be completed in 2 years for $2060, a bachelor degree can be completed in 4 years for $4060, and an MBA can be completed in 15 months for $2460.”

That’s significantly cheaper than a conventional degree.

The university made the headlines in early 2018 when US Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles enrolled in it and credited this education model for having helped her fit her studies around her successful gymnastics career.

And then there is Smartly, the world’s first fully-free MBA program that was launched in 2016 by Pedago, an ed-tech startup that charges universities and companies that use its technology. The startup also offers an Executive MBA program that costs a mere fraction of what conventional schools charge.

Despite all these technological solutions that have revolutionised higher education, we still don’t see a sea change in the way we learn. In our interconnected world, we often get pulled in all directions by alluring headlines and attractive images, forgetting what we were looking for in the first place. So, online learning becomes a game of willpower and focus. 

So what is the solution? How can we ensure that learning is more goal-centric, focused and future-relevant? How do we not get distracted and become lifelong learners? 

We shall explore some solutions in Part 2 of this series next week. 

Research by: Alywin Chew


This article is the first in our 3-part series on 'The Future of Education' commemorating the International Day of Education that falls on January 24. Read the second part on What Employees Want, and the third part on Changing The Way We Learn.

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