The virtues of virtual higher education

Collage of campanile and studentsMurder hornets. The Great Toilet Paper Panic. And New York Magazine’s thought-provoking interview with NYU’s Scott Galloway on the coming disruption to higher education. All serve to mark the calamitous year of 2020.

Just as the Internet has virtualized the retail industry, it’s now begun to do the same to higher education, with the economic and social distancing impacts of 2020’s pandemic serving as an accelerant. The business model within higher education was already facing strains prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The crisis’ effects are now magnifying impacts to colleges and universities large and small.

Galloway’s view is that a virtualizing higher education system, unfettered by the constraints of physical plant, will consolidate, with a handful of elite universities scooping up market share (aka. student enrollments), at the expense of non-elite institutions. With tuition significantly reduced due to a transition to online or hybrid teaching modalities, and student populations steadily siphoned away to elite institutions, non-elite colleges and universities may suffer the fate of shopping malls: cavernous buildings without a sustainable business model to keep them viable.

The higher education system in the U.S. is marked for disruption, with runaway student debt standing starkly symbolic. The asymmetry of the cost of higher education versus the income that such education affords is an economic inefficiency that will not – cannot – go unremedied. The technology industry has always been driven by big (“next billion users”), evergreen markets: higher education is ripe for innovation.

Education exists for one true purpose: to make life better. Everyone deserves the opportunity to improve their lives and the world around them. The measure of higher education, then, is impact: provisioning the human right of education so that each of us has the opportunity to make life better. While the virtualization of higher education may disrupt and remake a business model built over the past millennium, these changes can be hugely positive, with a re-imagined higher education finally delivering on the promise of equity.

The COVID-19 crisis thrust the US higher education system into virtualized instruction, essentially overnight. Despite the limitations inherent in online education — including the revenue impact on institutions from reduced tuition — it brings students both access and scalability. Further, the combination of online and in-person education into “blended learning” can extend the reach of higher education, without compromising efficacy as a number of academic studies have shown.

For example, writing in the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (Dziuban, Graham, Moskal, Norberg & Sicilia 2018), researchers found “that blending maintains or increases access for most student cohorts and produces improved success rates for minority and non-minority students alike. In addition, when students express their beliefs about the effectiveness of their learning environments, blended learning enjoys the number one rank”, and moving on to conclude that “it seems clear that blended learning is the harbinger of substantial change in higher education.”

Peril lies in Galloway’s suggestion that higher education needs to partner with Big Tech. If education is a human right – and it is – then surrendering stewardship of that right to a handful of shareholder-serving, profit-maximizing, data-monopolizing companies will not yield what is best for us as individuals or for society as a whole. This is particularly true when the dominant practitioners of Big Tech (Amazon, Facebook, Google) are regular subjects of government scrutiny for privacy violation. Put bluntly, higher education needs to address the challenge of virtualizing its business by itself, without letting the Big Tech fox into the trillion-dollar henhouse.

While Big Tech may not provide viable partnership for higher education, what it does provide is a valuable palimpsest of how the future of higher education might be architected. The exegesis of the Big Tech business model today (and tomorrow!) is data-centricity. Companies such as Amazon and Google have mastered the art of ingesting multi-dimensional (hyper-dimensional) input data streams to understand the consumer, synthesized with multi-dimensional output data streams to drive business-friendly behavioral economics. Higher education needs to emulate exactly this.

The field of edtech today is well served by a number of content-centric companies. Udemy, Coursera and Udacity are a few examples. Some excellent university-driven projects are also already underway to further instrument the educational process. Two great examples are the Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project and the University Innovation Alliance. All of these efforts address the various pressing needs – content, tracking student progress – of virtualized higher education. With these bases already covered, where might a university (or innovative higher education start-up) focus?

When the virtualization of higher education eliminates the physical barriers to enrollment and the geographical and financial barriers to access, the best “brand” universities will be in position to seize dominant positions worldwide. Whether these winners are already among the top 50 referenced by Galloway or are among the 50th through 1000th ranked universities deemed at risk, every university will have to fight the branding battle else face senescence and obsolescence. Being a Fortune 50 company a mere 20 years ago didn’t help retailers Sears Roebuck, J.C. Penney or Kmart survive the disruptive forces of the Internet. Similarly, there’s no guarantee that today’s Top 50 university will also survive the Internet’s disruption. The playing field has changed permanently.

So here’s where those who wish to be among the winners of the battle for higher education might focus: brand-building. Brand-building may seem outside the mission of higher education, but clearly these brands already exist and have long been carefully curated. The new reality for higher education will be that its future business model will make the battle for brand an existential one. Every institution must fight it – consolidation awaits those who lose – and any institution can win if the weapon of virtualization can be deftly wielded.

When virtualization changes access and economics, students and faculty will no longer be held captive by geography or finances. The best brand wins. The best brands are the ones with which we feel a personal connection — it’s not a matter of price. Brand affinity is about feeling connected.

Educational content is a commodity and there are many providers of it online; abstract algebra is abstract algebra, and zoology is zoology, no matter where they’re taught or the medium. If content alone was sufficient for provisioning virtualized higher education, then the industry would have been disrupted long ago. This disruption has been stalled because, whether online student or faculty, we have been unwilling to sacrifice our most basic educational need: human connection.

Our educational experiences are memorable because of the people, not the buildings or the books. Humans crave connection with one another, and simply consuming online educational content does not provide for this need. Successfully delivering higher education via virtualized means will require recreating the “magic of the classroom”: meaningful faculty/student connection and student/student connection, all built upon a blended learning strategy. We have no end of technology-driven content today. We don’t have very much technology-driven connection. The next generation of higher education brands will be built by those who do this best.

Is it possible to deliver interpersonal connection virtually, “a cognitive and affective sense of relational closeness”, for people who are geographically separated? Seminal work on the topic of “perceived proximity” was done by Michael O’Leary, Jeanne Wilson and Anca Metiu (2014), and also together with Quintus Jett (2008). O’Leary et al. showed “how people can form strong bonds despite being separated by large distances and continue to shift the emphasis from information systems as ‘pipes’ or channels to information systems as vehicles for conveying shared meaning and symbolic value”. Specifically, connection via perceived proximity can be built through communication (defined by frequency, depth and interactivity) and shared identity (the “process of self-categorization with respect to others”). Key to future virtualized education, the researchers concluded that “the impact of perceived proximity on work relationships outweighs objective proximity” [of distance].

Operationalizing the work of behavioral scientists such as O’Leary and his colleagues to drive interpersonal bonds in blended learning settings may be the key to building affective, next-generation brands within higher education. Researchers have discovered the means of building interpersonal bonds through liking (Collins & Miller 1994, Sprecher, Treger & Wondra 2012) and closeness (Lin & Utz 2017). We understand the power of group identification (Wakefield et al. 2017) in human satisfaction, and the importance of “weak” ties (Granovetter 1973, Sandstrom & Dunn 2014) on happiness, belonging, and social and emotional well-being. In these ways behavioral science can be deployed online to help build relationships to drive the sense of connection that traditional offline education has fostered since the time of Socrates. “Intentional serendipity” can become a technical design goal.

How can we step towards freeing higher education from today’s constraint of compulsory proximity? Ingest hyper-dimensional data signals; drive machine learning models; output beneficial, student-focused behavioral science. Instead of the addictive engagement of social media to drive “Likes” or “Buy Now”, we might benevolently use behavioral science to deliver equity and affective education, while simultaneously building resilient and ethical educational brands within an economically ruthless 21st Century business model.

Our first foray into the virtualization of education was the invention of the printing press. Mass-produced books have not, after a 580-year beta test, succeeded in providing an educational vehicle that can be successful without the complement of the human factor. Content is clearly a necessary but insufficient component of education. Human connection is still needed; educational technology must expand to explicitly deliver on our psychological needs per Maslow’s hierarchy.

The COVID-19 crisis has fast-forwarded the evolution of the higher education business model. Social distancing has forced the reality of virtualization upon higher education today. We face, therefore, not a simple exercise in perfecting distance learning, but one of redesigning higher education for the modern age. It will not be an exercise of just delivering commoditized content but also one of delivering human connection. Before the Big Tech data monopolies do so for us.

A tall order to be sure, but an existential one. Institutions must be able to meet this challenge through their own efforts. It cannot be outsourced to outside parties any more than UC Berkeley outsource its campus to Stanford or MIT to Harvard. It is only through provisioning the anti-commodity (“the more you have the more it’s worth”) of human connection that successful 21st Century higher education brands will be built. The consolidation of education into just a few online institutions would be a disastrous outcome. The end goal must be to have a diversity of successful institutions for our diverse planet. Higher education must flourish, not only for the learning it provides, but also for the basic research that it drives.

As Scott Galloway noted, “[exposing] young people — who are more creative, greater risk-takers, and more fearless — to the world and our problems and gives them the opportunity to craft better solutions”. The challenges looming before us are increasing in number and magnitude. Addressing them head-on, surmounting them, will require maximizing the potential of every one of us through education. The goal of education continues to be to make life better for the many, and not just bestow prestige on the few.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Higher education re-examined under the lens of virtualization might bring us a new business model worth living, delivering both equity and impact.

Cross-posted from the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology