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Universities Are Being Disrupted

I finished my undergraduate studies almost exactly one year ago. In the unusual position of having recently been an undergraduate, as well as having four immediate family members working in academia and university administration, and working myself at an educational technology firm, I have had cause to become concerned with the narrative surrounding universities in the United States. Seemingly everyone holds that universities must change, but why and into what is rarely examined.
The climate around universities in America is not positive. Traditionally regarded across the political spectrum as crucibles of social and economic growth, they are now accused simultaneously of being too progressive and too institutional. Boards and alumni worry that schools are too radical, students that schools are too conservative, and everyone worries that schools are simultaneously too expensive and too poor.
online educationThese worries underlie a perception that American universities are being disrupted. Parents, consumers, and legislators voice concerns about the ROI of a college education, looking to for profit and industrialized schools, thinking they may provide a more value-centric degree (think of the Courseras of the world).
How have universities, traditionally the most forward looking, and among the most successful American institutions, found themselves so threatened by disruption? How may they transform themselves to satisfy their opposed constituents, to survive and thrive in the world transformed by information and communications technology?
I work at Kaltura, the leading provider of video technology for education, because of the commitment that universities hold the essential components of a self-sufficient future in their institutional body already. What they need now is to effectively leverage emerging technologies to translate their model of inquiry and critical education into positive and engaging experiences for their constituent consumers, be they students, alumni, trustees, parents, or faculty.

Universities Resemble and Are Disrupted by Social Networks, Not Online Educators

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia are among the most successful social networks globally. Each leverages a different asset to claim its slice of consumer attention.

  • Facebook: networking, organizing, and content discovery among/recommended by friends
  • LinkedIn: networking among professionals constructing networks of trust and influence
  • Twitter: quantified zeitgeist. Twitter’s so-called “Firehose” makes available and quantifies into trends the stream-of-consciousness of its millions of users
  • YouTube: niche content, easily searchable
  • Wikipedia: distributed generation and codification of knowledge, made accessible and consumable

The real disruptors of higher education are not the for profits, they are the social networks. Each of these networks selects and optimizes a core value of a university education more proficiently than the supposed EDU disruptors. A college education or graduate degree is not reducible to a suite of social networking products, but it should be as adeptly packaged, and to remain relevant, it must be.
This is the core disruptive threat driving the negative dialogue around universities. Social networks are free now. Knowledge is supposedly open source. One can make friends and read news on Facebook. One can meet relevant professionals on LinkedIn. One can be on the cultural cutting edge from an armchair, via Twitter. One can search the functionally infinite and expertly organized library of YouTube for niche, personalized stimulation, and Wikipedia for good-enough technical information. While the private sector has been rapidly iterating on the core functionality of these experiences, the user experience of a university has barely changed in decades.
Universities have been gently iterating on the instantiations of value presented to their consumers (through LMSs and halfhearted attempts at alumni engagement) even as their disruptors have been working to commoditize these value propositions through technical innovation and engaging user interfaces. Facebook is the paradigm case of this. The service began as a way of connecting students on campus. Why, seeing this, didn’t universities leap to imitate this model to knit their members more closely to the institutional body?
Universities are platforms that haven’t recognized or behaved as though they are platforms.

Universities Have a Promising (and Important) Business Model

Traditional lectureThe same technology that enabled Silicon Valley to disrupt everything, including universities, is inexpensively available to empower university experiences. It is not coincidence that Facebook is playing for the video market, Twitter (through Periscope) has entered streaming, and YouTube took the world by storm. Video is not only an excellent tool for education, when paired appropriately with other media, it is an excellent tool for social engagement. One method of resolving the dissonant desires of university constituents is to innovate their modes of user engagement, and that takes the form of a content rich, flexibly organized, and social video portal.

  • Students: Predictive and personalizing video portals provide the engaged experience and instant gratification that millennials as consumers expect. By effectively providing content tailored to the student’s interest, the school is also able to manage its perception as an institution. Well targeted, easily searchable, and disability accessible video allows schools to effectively communicate their values (and value), to students.
  • Alumni: the status quo of graduation today is that the next, and likely the only interaction alumni will have with their alma mater is fundraising. Hopefully it will be lubricated by free drinks at alumni weekend. A video portal allows alumni to engage year round, and to perceive value from the continuing experience of education, generating a continuing relationship with their school. There is a material financial benefit to schools with engaged (read: philanthropic) alumni, but there is also value in familiarizing alumni and the world with the always growing body of knowledge produced through dedicated research. Universities have incomparable troves of data on their alumni’s interests. With a customized, predictive video portal, every alumna is on the visiting committee and alumni week is every week.
  • Governors: trustees are comfortable seeing technology driving revenue, communicating research and values, and building brand. Personalized content distribution realizes latent value, generates revenue, and makes ubiquitous the university’s institutional perspective.
  • Faculty: it is in both the school’s and the faculty’s interests to amplify the voices of research and pedagogy. Every talk should be a TED Talk. Research must be communicated to transform policy and perceptions. A university’s brand does not consist in its buildings, but in its people and its ideas. Empowering faculty to generate discussion, build their own and the school’s brand, and make a difference makes them participants in the institution’s success.

Universities’ resemblance to social networks is what has allowed for their disruption, but it is also the strength of the university model.
Through video (viewing, recording, and contacting each other), alumni, students, and faculty can create unparalleled communities of interest. They may generate professional, intellectual, and emotional connections on a scale before which LinkedIn pales. How many people come of age, meet their spouses, or find their calling on LinkedIn?
Educational videoLive streaming, filmed events, student radio, podcasts, photographs, theater, art, music, lectures, presentations, athletics, graduations, etc. have the potential to generate relationships more engaging and lasting, and valuable, than Facebook.
YouTube struggles to generate and attract premium content, instead relying on appeal to numerous niche audiences. A university not only appeals to niches across the intellectual spectrum, it generates premium, inimitable content. My own alma mater has, in the last few months, had President Obama, Vice President Biden, Edward Snowden, and any number of other luminaries speak. The cumulative value of this is lost on Facebook and YouTube, where metrics are sparse, branding practically nonexistent, and options for monetization minimal. This is tremendously valuable media, dumped on the Internet without care or control.
Finally, Twitter. Twitter quantifies the zeitgeist, but it has no control over its user demographic. Universities don’t work to extrapolate the zeitgeist, they generate it. Communities of diverse, influential people synthesizing and creating the cutting edge across almost every domain of human activity is what Twitter aspires to be, but never will.
One of the tremendous advantages universities possess is their presence in the physical domain. No experience is as engaging as the experience in which the participant is actually present (hence the push by social networks into Virtual Reality). To overcome disruption, however, universities will need to meet, and to match, the experiences and convenience enabled by the digital world as well.
The proposition of a university education should not be four unforgettable years and a fantastic education. It should be lifelong membership in a scholastic community, a thoughtful family of entrepreneurs and influencers, working together and alone to transform the world and each other. This begins with four unforgettable years and a fantastic education, but it continues with granular access to the firehose generated by the university’s collective activity. This can only be achieved through secure, branded, searchable, personalize-able, social video portals.

Looking for tips on using video in education? Watch what leading educators have to say.

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