A Snowball’s Chance in Hell

Volume V, #8

In college, my roommates and I inherited a GE fridge that was 30 years old and built like a Sherman tank; it seemed like it weighed as much as one – so says my muscle memory from room-storage-room moves each year. It was so cumbersome that when it came time to finally dispose of it, our roommate who drew the short straw struggled to the middle of Old Campus and then left it there in a fit of pique. It took Physical Plant a full week to remove it.

But the fridge was most famous as an all-season font of winter fun. Junior year, we occupied a suite on the top floor of Vanderbilt Hall with a skylight that opened onto Chapel Street. My roommate Chris, a formidable pitcher on his high school baseball team, would open the skylight and dream of launching projectiles onto unsuspecting passers-by. Dream became reality when he realized our tank-of-a-fridge produced sufficient frost for him to pack snowballs. Now Chris had incredible aim. He never hit anyone. But his snowballs exploded with force a safe distance away, and the shocked and puzzled looks on the faces of New Haven citizenry meeting snowballs on hellish summer days provided hours of amusement. Snow on the streets in the town of New Haven…

Except there wasn’t enough frost. The fridge only produced one snowball per hour and we all wanted more. So Chris called the number on the back of the fridge – still a working number 30 years on – and asked a question that GE refrigerator technical support had never heard before: How do I get more frost in my freezer? The surprised representative read Chris tips for “less frost” and suggested he do the opposite. So he left the door open a crack and directed a humidifier towards the opening. Snowball production increased three-fold, which was good for his pitching arm, but equally bad for Chapel Street pedestrians and my stereo speakers. Why my speakers? Frost quickly overtook the entire freezer, causing Chris to remove a box of ice cream to the nearest flat surface – my speaker. The next morning, the ice cream had melted down the front of the speaker. Adding insult to injury, my other roommate, Alex, immersed in Introductory Japanese – a class that met daily at Yale, and an immersive higher education experience if there ever was one – happened to be sitting next to the speaker that morning and, rather than cleaning up the mess, absentmindedly carved kanji characters into the dried ice cream.


Today Chris wouldn’t have had to find that number on the back of the fridge, hoping it worked. He would have looked up his frost question online. And while that would have been less amusing, it illustrates there are fewer and fewer things that can’t be done online.

Likewise, the categories of learning experiences that are only effective in-person are dwindling. At the same time, the online medium in higher education remains unsure of itself. As our most prestigious institutions are our oldest, tradition remains a byword for quality. So online starts on shaky ground. Consequently, since its inception, online learning has resorted to two signals in an attempt to convey respectability and gain acceptance.

The first signal is instructional design i.e., more or less slavishly replicating the classroom environment (i.e., weekly lecture, discussion, assignments). While perhaps effective in achieving initial legitimacy, it has been a counterproductive signal, delaying taking advantage of the medium to develop new delivery models that significantly improve student outcomes.

The second signal has been price. As price is a signal for quality in higher education, to date most universities haven’t dared signal lower quality with lower tuition. And with the market rate for online programs set at the same level as onground programs, universities like Jones International University could charge $70,000 for an online bachelor’s degree. That is, until they go out of business. Legitimacy quickly becomes a secondary concern when there are no students.

If we assume that over the next few years online delivery will make major advances in the areas of accessibility, affordability and efficacy, it is certain that the medium will abandon both of these counterproductive signals. We’re already starting to see this with attempts to adapt for smartphone delivery and the shift to lower-cost competency-based learning models that incorporate adaptive technology.

But while MOOCs have placed online on the agenda for university cabinet and trustee meetings, the medium still has a long way to go before it is viewed within higher education as equivalent to traditional classroom learning. Last month’s news that Yale had signed on with 2U to launch a blended Master’s degree in Medical Science for aspiring physician associates (PA) is a better reflection of the fact that online is viewed as “safe” for small programs from professional schools – viewed by alumni of the “prestigious” schools within the university as ancillary, or no different than a certificate program in terms of risk to the brand – than that online has gained admission to the inner sanctum. Kevin Carey is correct in referring to top universities as more of a “treaty” than an institution. And according to the terms of the treaty, online remains a second-class citizen.

So expect that online will resort to new means to convey legitimacy. In place of poor instructional design and high tuition, two signals will gain frequency and amplitude over the next few years. The first is connecting online programs to the brands of employers as well as recognized and respected brands in target industries. This could be bespoke online programs for employees and prospective employees of given employers. It could be programs centered on a specific technology or standard. Or it could be programs like the master’s degree in integrated design, business and technology from USC and Wired Magazine. Whatever the modality, the promise to students is connectivity to employers and their goal job. As with most innovations in online delivery, we’re seeing it first at the master’s level. Undergraduate will follow.

The second signal is an oldie but a goodie: blended delivery. Blended delivery permits service providers like 2U and Synergis Education to deliver degree programs with a clinical component. But blended is even more central to online’s international ambitions over the coming years. In most emerging markets, online continues to be viewed as synonymous with traditional correspondence courses, which are viewed as low quality, and therefore only command a very low price point. In China, where the government still requires that universities stamp “online” on degrees that are delivered 100% online, “O” is the Scarlet Letter of online education. And in Brazil, the Ministry of Education does not permit 100% online degrees, which has yielded vast networks of distance learning centers, where according to many reports, students show up in order to not do much of anything.


While only a small number of traditional universities have achieved scale online without the formal involvement of service providers (i.e., Liberty, Southern New Hampshire), traditional universities could reasonably delude themselves into believing they could go online without assistance when the requisite signals for legitimacy were inefficient instructional design and high prices. But now, with competing demands of advancing accessibility, affordability and efficacy, while continuing to convey legitimacy through employer connectivity and blended delivery, colleges and universities attempting to go it alone will have a snowball’s chance in hell. As these new signals begin to drown out the old ones, service providers with specialized capabilities in these areas – both domestically and internationally – will become even more integral to the online ambitions of traditional universities. Let’s hope they can live up to GE’s standards of customer service.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

Edsurge thought-piece on the raison d’être, past and future of credentials, by Matt Pittinsky: “To have real, sustainable value, we need to make credentials a richer, updateable and personalized record of skills, expertise and experience. We need to move beyond one-dimensional, paper certificates toward more functional, portable descriptions of what one knows. And we need to do this while preserving the integrity and reliability of credentials for employers, institutions and peers that must use them to make critical, informed decisions.” Read more Bloomberg Business article on the Chinese “gold rush” to Australian universities, by David Fickling: “Chinese students are flocking to Australia, making up a fifth of some 400,000 people seeking an education Down Under. At Federation, more than 44 percent of the students attending Australia’s newest university come from overseas with most paying fees that are about double those paid by locals… The number of people on student visas at the end of October was greater than the population of the capital city Canberra.” Read more Washington Post column/rant against the higher education establishment, by Paypal co-founder and Internet bon vivant Peter Thiel: “A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.” Read more
College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education Buy the book now at Amazon

“A Must Read Book on Education for 2015.”
-   InformED

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