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Interview: Author Michael B. Horn Talks About The Future of Universities

By on April 5, 2012
Blended Learning, Cost of Education, Domestic, Education Quality, Feature, Flipped Classrooms, Interview, K-12, Opinion, Private, Public, Regulatory, Required, Startups, top, Universities & Colleges

Michael B. Horn, Executive Director of the Innosight Institute

We’re pleased to publish Michael Horn’s commentary on WiredAcademic as a regular guest columnist in the future. Horn is a thought leader in the area of disruption theory as applied to the education sector. He is co-founder and executive director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank. He co-authored the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way The World Learns (McGraw-Hill) with Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation theory. Horn received an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA in history from Yale University. He’s on several boards of education-related companies and non-profits. He spoke recently with Wired Academic managing editor Paul Glader recently about where universities and other schools are heading:

WA – How did you become interested in this area?
MH – I had a background in public policy and writing and journalism. I had worked for David Gergen who had worked for several US presidents and is on the news often these days. I tried to escape it to be honest and went to business school…. I took Clayton Christensen’s class, which changed my view on everything. I had the opportunity to co-author the book (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) with him… [Education] is the biggest problem facing the country. Using his theory, I thought we could see things that the country needed to hear.

WA – And the book was recently re-issued?
MH – Yes. It came out in 2008 originally. We did an expanded edition in 2010.

WA – Did sales spikes recently with more interest in online learning?
MH – They seem to have. Online learning around the world is growing significantly… More college curriculum is adopting it… When we first issued the book, it sold really well… it seems to have continued to catch another growth with wind in the sales. I think the growth of Khan Academy around the world is a big part of it… If you read Chapter 5 and insert Khan Academy, their growth and path they are taking is very similar to what we are talking about.

WA – The 60 Minutes piece that came out recently on Sal Khan, how important is it? What does Sal Khan mean to online learning and disruptive innovation right now?
MH — He is bringing it to the masses in a much more accessible way. He is bringing it to people of all demographics and all around the world, which is popularizing it in ways no one has understood. He is showing the next generation of where this is going… His growth is showing there is a huge appetite for this out there… We are seeing schools start to adopt it, showing there is more appetite for innovation among teachers as well.

WA – What are the roadblocks to online learning? Is it moving faster or slower than you predicted in 2008?
MH – My gut tells me it is about as fast as we predicted in the book. We predicted by 2019, 50% of all high school courses in the US will be delivered online in some form or fashion. My rough feel is that it is roughly on target. There just isn’t great data to track it. When the book first came out, everyone thought that was crazy…. now, some think it is too conservative of a prediction. The financial crisis sped things up a bit. It will probably be right plus or minus on either side.

WA – When we get to 2020, what else will we be seeing?
MH – The opportunity is to have a world where it is a competency-based learning system. Students move on when they have grasped the material rather than at a set time. It will be about untying a bunch of factory-like policies. That’s the question … is whether our regulations will modernize into this new world.

WA – What most needs to change in k-12 in your opinion?
MH – The biggest thing is the elimination as the seat-time rules as we call them in the US. We pay based on how long students sit in seats. We have a calendar that determines pacing for a class of students … getting rid of seat based instruction and moving toward competency based learning is No. 1. Teacher certification is another area… the Khan Academy is showing that teachers in the future will be critically important. But they will have different types of roles. Third, thinking about infrastructure, the wireless broadband connections is going to be absolutely important to modernize the school infrastructure. Seat time would be an issue in higher ed as well. It’s in the form of credit hours there. Also, moving more toward an outcome-based funding model is important, where online providers are paid in part on student outcomes.

WA – Is higher ed moving quicker along these lines of disruption than k-12?
MY – Yes. As far as moving to online learning, absolutely. But k-12 is experimenting with types of learning more than higher education. I think it is starting to change with Silicon Valley investing with some imaginative startups… I think higher ed will lead k-12 in this endeavor ultimately…There is more of a blank slate to re-imagine what education looks like in higher ed. So many people around the world never had experience or access to it. You can imagine delivery and modalities and innovation to deliver it.

WA – What will be the role of for-profit colleges in the next 20 years?
MH – Broadly, for profits will be playing a big role in education around the world. Whether they remain big or are disrupted by the next generation, it’s still an interesting question. A lot of for profits will be playing a big, important role in improving higher ed in the next 20 years. I suspect The University of Phoenix will continue to grow. I am excited about the next generation of innovations underneath them.

WA – Can you talk about some of those?
MH – New Charter just launched. It is structured like Western Governor’s University. They will offer a semester worth of courses for $700-some. It’s a flat rate. You can take as many classes as you want. They won’t take federal dollars at all or state aid. They are doing amazing things with learning platforms. That will be tremendously exciting and put things on its head. Fidelis Education – full disclosure, I am sitting on the board – their tech platform is solving the military to civilian transition. They are working with existing colleges to help veterans the first two years of college and to get them to a degree and a job. Then there is the set of Udacity, Udemy and MITx that I think are pretty neat as well. MITx is non-profit but the other two are for-profits. I think they will modularize the course experience. It’s really going to challenge a lot of existing institutions.

WA – What’s your take on for-profit college rules that went into effect this past year?
MH – Complicated. I think the way they revised them is pretty clunky and not ideal. I understand the intent. It is to align around what the students and not the institutions want. I just wish we would break free from the non-profit v. for profit categorization schemes. I’d like to see a level playing field.

WA – How does the strata or structure of colleges and universities change in 5 or 10 years?
MH – A lot of for profits occupying the low-end right now start moving up market in coming years. I think a lot of middle tier institutions in the US will collapse or merge in the next 10 years. With the financial difficulties that a lot of universities are having here, it is hard to imagine they won’t have change in the next 10 years. The elites should be fine. As long as you are not sitting in the middle. You will have new upstarts coming in that make the picture more jumbled. We will come back in 10 years and see fewer institutions serving many more people.

WA – What happens to state schools, which enroll a bulk of students? What should they be doing?
MH – My guess is that many of the flagship universities in states will be fine. There is a good reason to have a good research base in a regional place. Schools do many good things for students in the community. They will be OK. The next tier of state institutions … it will be a much more significant issue for them that I am worried about. My advice would be to pick a strategy and focus… don’t try to be all things to all people. Really try to carve out an important niche for yourself that will be defensible and add value in the future. I do think it will be tough. For so long, the strategy of universities has been to try to emulate Harvard by adding everything – adding lots of research and sporting facilities and great buildings and so forth. That’s not going to be a sustainable strategy going forward. For many of these institutions, online may be a powerful part of what they do. That focus will be really important. When you are going online, what is unique about you?

WA – Do you think online learning will be an export industry for US colleges and universities? A possible boost to national GDP?
MH – I think it is a big opportunity for a place like India too. They are english speaking and have an opportunity to add to GDP. If the US sees it this way, it is a huge opportunity. The value of US education is still valued worldwide as much as we gripe about it here. It is an opportunity to see it as an export opportunity. The key is to keep innovating … online will flatten. Some of the more niche offerings will grow but others will become a commodity… It’’s the wild west right now. You can carve out any brand you want.

WA – The college experience that you and I had – being on campus, in lectures and in student-led associations? What becomes of that?
MH – For many students, you will continue to have those experiences. Flagships and elite universities are probably going to be OK. It’s a critical job to be done that universities do. It’s not just an academic job. It is helping one find a network and transfer to adulthood. At the moment, we don’t see anything disrupting that. The majority of people never had access to that. So they will want to try something different…. some might get academic and course experience online and do a habitat for humanity and apprenticeship overseas.

WA – Do you have any new books in the works with Dr. Christensen or on your own?
MH – We’re talking it over. We are thinking a couple things that are worth a book from us. We haven’t decided to dive in yet. I’m working on a book now with Rick Hess of American Enterprise Institute … about the role of for-profits in education… A compilation of several pieces. That will be coming out in the next few months.



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