Earlier this year I had a chance to spend some time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, talking to a host of venture capitalists and ed tech startup companies about the recent surge of investment and entrepreneurialism in the education sector. It was fascinating and, coming from the traditionally-minded, government-focused world of Washington, DC, a lot like visiting a foreign country.
So it was fun to see many of the same people again last month, this time closer to home, on the top floor of Microstrategy’s semi-circular glass headquarters in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The meeting was co-hosted by Michael Saylor and former Lotus 1-2-3 CEO and current investor/philanthropist Mitch Kapor. One of the featured guests was Aneesh Chopra, the charismatic former Chief Technology Officer for the United States of America and rumored candidate for the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia who was once described by Jon Stewart during a Daily Show broadcast as the “Indian George Clooney.”
My friend Michael Staton was there, representing the college social networking and student engagement company he founded, Inigral. So were the guys from New Charter University, a recently-launched low-cost online university startup, and Eren Baldi from the online learning platform Udemy, along with a collection of tech people, for-profit college executives, and Obama administration representatives.
Michael Saylor got the ball rolling by talking about how many of the ideas now percolating in the policy and startup worlds are not entirely new. In 2000, at the height of his wealth, Saylor announced that he was going to donate $100 million to create a free online university. The dot-com bust put the dampers on that for a while, but now Saylor is ready to try again. He explained that back in 2000, eons ago, the idea everyone had was to tape great lecturers and broadcast them over the Internet. Unfortunately, the Internet wasn’t ready--people were still on dial-up connections and streaming technology was underdeveloped. The easy way to make money, Saylor noted, was to go the Mark Cuban route of building a cool-seeming (and long-since gone defunct) streaming audio/video site called Broadcast.com, sell it to Yahoo! for $6 billion in Yahoo! stock, sell all of said Yahoo! stock before the bubble burst, and buying the Dallas Mavericks. The hard way is to wait until the technology infrastructure catches up and then found a non-profit organization that distributes free open-source college courses to anyone who wants them, which is what he, Saylor, has done with the eponymous Saylor.org.
The subsequent conversation goes for several hours and repeatedly circles around the various legal and regulatory complexities that make it difficult for non-traditional online universities to compete with entrenched competitors. Accreditation, access to financial aid, credit transfer, regulatory compliance, the list goes on.
At one point, Saylor says something along the lines of, “This all sounds really, really complicated. It’s hard for me to get my head around. I really doubt these problems can actually be solved. This credit transfer stuff is like trying to figure out how to fix the system of inter-library loans when what you should do instead is download the contents of the New York Public Library to every child’s iPad, which would cost about a nickel.” In other words, maybe we need to think about totally different solutions. Saylor is said to be fond of historical analogies and there’s a distinctly Gordian feel to his vision of solving the contemporary higher education knot.
The one other person in the room who talks this way is Eren Bali, the teen mathematics prodigy who made his way from a rural village in eastern Turkey to Silicon Valley and his own rapidly-growing company. He doesn’t understand why we’re talking about colleges and college degrees, he says. You can find good college courses in thousands of subjects on the Internet, for free. His company is adding more every day. And you can find out what you need to know about someone by looking at their blog, Facebook profile, Twitter feed, and other forms of social media. These things provide way more interesting information than a resume or a college transcript. Everything you need to learn and prove what you’ve learned is online and costs nothing. What else do people really need?
Saylor and Bali are voicing the biggest unanswered question about the future of higher education worldwide. In one scenario, the existing institutions continue to adapt and run things for the forseeable future. Some embrace technology, others don’t, and the former end up consolidating wealth and power. A week earlier, Harvard had announced that it was joining MIT to form edX, another entrant in the coming war for supremacy in owning a dominant and incredibly lucrative online platform on which students and education providers meet. It’s hard to bet against institutions that are so wealthy, entrenched in the power structure, and own such phenomenally valuable brands.
In the other scenario, the whole system collapses under the weight of its expense and lack of an authentic core of plausible evidence that the students paying so much for higher education are actually learning anything. College itself becomes archaic and is replaced by a whole new collection of institutions.
It all starts to sound like a massive East Coast / West Coast battle between America’s most prestigious research universities and most ambitious entrepreneurs for control over 21st century global higher education, a fight between the two parts of our economy most often cited as America’s key competitive assets in the struggle for continued dominance and prosperity. Who, exactly, the Biggie and Tupac are remains to be seen.