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Brett Greene

Brett Greene

Posted: April 2, 2010 02:44 PM

Interview With Futurist Thomas Frey on the Future of Colleges and Universities

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In Louisville, Colorado it's common to run into Thomas Frey in the grocery store, working out at the rec center, or greeting people at events hosted by the DaVinci Institute. But outside the mundane city life in Colorado, Tom has emerged as one of the world's leading futurists, routinely taking the stage at top events with well-known figures like Rudy Giuliani, Tom Peters, and Jack Welch.

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One of his latest predictions is an upheaval that is about to take place on college campuses as the forces of the economy and the Internet begin to bear down on it.

Here are some excerpts from a conversation I had with Tom at a coffee shop in Boulder last week:

GREENE: Last year you published a paper on titled "The Future of Colleges & Universities: Blueprint for a Revolution." What kind of reaction have you gotten to it?

FREY: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has created some fascinating discussions about topics that most colleges haven't considered.

I'm an outsider who is taking a hard look at the bigger picture of how colleges and universities will have to reinvent themselves to fit into the ever-evolving society in the future. Naturally some of the points we are going to disagree on, and that's good. These are topics that need to be debated, and the sooner the better.

GREENE: In one paper you wrote that "colleges are under attack, facing the perfect storm." What indicators are you looking at that would lead you to that conclusion?

FREY: The first breaking point will come in the form of money. Overhead costs are far too high, state support is dropping, and college tuition is far too expensive. Colleges are pricing themselves out of existence.

Online education can take place at a fraction of the cost. Many of the courses can be packaged and commoditized, and as courseware aggregators begin to sell courses online, there will invariably be course wars where each will try to undercut the price of their competition.

Colleges have huge operating budgets and the corporate world is seeing this as fertile territory to make money. The vultures are already circling.

GREENE: As colleges evolve, will we still have majors?

FREY: This is a great question. Yes, we will still have majors..... for a while. But they will have diminishing value in the years ahead.

On the one hand they help people envision a career path, but on the other hand they limit a student's ability to explore and find their true areas of interest. Majors tend to be a label that is both defining and restrictive at the same time.

Majors represent a top-down approach to sorting out what skills are important for a given career path. But over time the major tends to lose its relevance.

Employers use majors to help prioritize candidates, but they all know that the major alone is a poor indicator of the skills and talents an individual will bring to the table.

Is there a better system? None that I'm aware of yet, but it is clearly an old system long overdue for an infusion of disruptive new approaches.

GREENE: We live in a very distracted society and students who are left on their own to make progress will often get lured into conversations on Facebook or playing games. With more and more education happening online, don't we run the risk of students losing perspective and becoming less productive? Doesn't the classroom environment help focus a student's attention?

FREY: Yes, classrooms are designed to focus attention, close off the rest of the world, and create a controllable environment where learning can take place.

However, the person or education system that controls the classroom also controls the time when learning can take place, the students who will participate, the lighting, the sounds, the media used, the tools, the pace, the subject matter, and in many cases, the results.

But classroom-centric education is not necessary for learning.

We are in a very primitive state of development in the online world and your question presupposes that to be online we are somehow tied to a computer, much the same way education today would have students tied to a classroom.

Computers will eventually become invisible, and in a similar fashion, the walls of a classroom will disappear.

Education will evolve far beyond simply conveying information, because that can be handled many different ways. And it needs to evolve beyond the process of simply "connecting the dots" because that too is easy to replicate in a repeatable digital format.

My contention is that most students get distracted by music and social media because our current state of education is not sufficiently engaging to command their full attention.

GREENE: You have many ideas for the directions colleges will take with their courses. Can you elaborate on these?

FREY: While most colleges are striving the "be the best," most consumers are opting for a solution that is "good enough."

Traditional thinking presupposes that quality education can only be delivered by a topical expert in the front of a classroom. A recent study by SRI International paints a radically different picture. It confirms that students learn far more effectively through online learning than classroom education.

Learning isn't meant to be confined to a box, and students virtually never "master" a topic simply by taking a class.

We are setting the stage for a "good enough" courseware repository similar to iTunes, where people around the world work through a template process for creating new courses. In a similar fashion, people around the world will take the courses and each course taken will go onto their personal record.

Early on, many of the courses will be poor quality offerings with limited value. However, over time the quality will improve dramatically. This will lead to the any-topic, anytime, anyplace form of education we will see in the future.

While classrooms will be in use for many years to come, their value will diminish quickly as the online options become more pervasive.

Many of the physical classrooms will be converted to eLearning laboratories, some to research centers. The real classroom of the future will take place inside the mind of the student, wherever they happen to be.

GREENE: You predict that within the next ten years 10% of all colleges in the U.S. will fail. Why do you think this will happen?

FREY: Colleges see themselves operating in a closed system where their main form of competition comes from other colleges. However, the disruptive forces that will launch the next-generation learning revolution will necessarily happen outside existing colleges.

Once a college course is converted into a recorded form of online education it becomes a commodity. And, as a commodity, it can be reengineered with better graphics, better audio, improved styling, delivered through hand-held devices, and marketed more effectively to different demographic groups.

Corporations will quickly invent a faster, better, cheaper model for delivering college education.

Colleges are like slow moving whales about to get attacked by saltwater piranhas. While department heads in colleges are off studying the mating rituals of Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, corporate managers are working day and night, ruthlessly focused on opening new markets and uncovering new revenue streams. The pace and intensity of the work is radically different.

The attacks will first take on the appearance of partnerships for handling the IT infrastructure, and the distribution and marketing of courses, but will quickly deteriorate into the tail wagging the dog.

Those attacking colleges, albeit indirectly, will be companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and IBM. Many colleges already have working relationships with these companies.

Colleges have long enjoyed the government-sanctioned protections of accreditation and degree-granting ability. This too is about to come under attack. Companies are playing for major stakes, and very little is off-limits in corporate America.

What's at stake is the possible development of a singular website capable of creating and distributing the vast majority of all courses in the world. It has the potential for becoming the largest and most influential website in the entire online universe.

In business terms, the online education arena has the potential to connect every living person on the face of the earth and become the largest and most profitable company in the world. That's what's at stake.

For colleges that get the lifeblood sucked out of them, victims of collateral damage, it's not that the corporate world has set out to destroy them. Rather, as the intensity for gaining new market share heats up, the gloves come off, and the ensuing wake that follows will leave behind a tidal wave of destruction.

GREENE: So, in the long run, will this lead to a better educated society?

FREY: Students will have far more options to match up with the appropriate style and form of education that clicks with them. They will also have the option of taking the course they are most interested in at the time they are interested in taking it.

The needs of the student will stop evolving around the needs of the college, and will the cost of learning plummeting, most barriers will go away, making education far more accessible.

My thinking is that this will lead to a far more educated society, with people far more prepared to handle the demands of the future.

 

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