There is no “New Normal”. Only a prolonged “Never Normal” — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). Countless networked parts. Data overload. Unstable challenges of unknown duration. Unknown unknowns. Unclear relationships. Cause and effect severed. Every response requiring hypothesising and experimentation, investing in information, testing, reshuffling, and building in slack. Facing multilayers of possible futures, but unable to tell exactly what they are. Defining our present only in terms of what it has just now ceased to be. Neither the problem nor the solutions are known. They are constantly changing and are co-created. The outcomes of our actions are unpredictable. Demand already exists, but supply does not. Or the other way around.
Trends that prefigured the first super-spreading event of SARS-CoV-2 will continue to accelerate. To transition, industries must reassess their value propositions. One industry under threat is higher education. According to Moody’s, at least twenty-five per cent of private colleges are now running deficits. Eventually, a forecasted failure rate will aggregate a combination of closures, mergers or acquisitions, and bankruptcies, unless universities and colleges reformulate themselves. Universities function as small cities, and just as retail closures in cities has accelerated from 9,500 stores in 2019 to 25,000 shops in 2020, it is inevitable that many universities are already insolvent.
Market failure will revolve around fake faith in platforms. Max Ventilla raised US$174 million in funding from Mark Zuckerberg and from Silicon Valley investment vehicles backed by billionaires Peter Thiel, Laurene Powell Jobs, Pierre Omidyar and Marc Andreessen to contour the AltSchool network. AltSchool spent $30 million annually on software. But there was no migration or adoption. Public and private schools never purchased the AltSchool platform.
The new value proposition is not about platforms or bigger channels and lower latency. It is about the unremarkables, unfinished learning and the overlooked. About using technology to eliminate inequity. A 2009 World Bank study by Felipe Barrera-Osorio shows that free home computers had no effects on educational outcomes. The 2012, IDB Working Paper No. 304 on the ‘One Laptop per Child Programme’ reported no effects of free home computers on any educational outcomes. In 2013, Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson conducted a study on computer ownership. They found that computer use increased substantially but there were no effects on educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and discipline.
Before SARS-CoV-2, Harvard’s Clayton Christensen predicted that a host of struggling colleges and universities—the bottom twenty-five per cent of every tier, will go bankrupt or merge in the next ten to fifteen years. In a VUCA milieu the real value proposition resides in a tailored blend of synchronous and asynchronous occasions for learning using adaptive learning technologies, and face-to-face encounters that best solve the learning needs of varied and emerging student segments inside a model of Lifelong Learning. The new value proposition must be configured around flexible credentialing and responding to the needs of non-traditional students, displaced workers, migrants, refugees, asylum seeks and adult learners. Colleges will have to enhance their core credential offerings with shorter-term, open-source pocket-size certifications and microcredentials.
This requires breaking down and unfollowing the existing menu of GATE approved majors and minors and reformulating and repackaging their underlying ingredients into relevant short-term and lifelong-learning programs tailored to specific students and needs. This is the only way to futureproof the workforce and deconstruct work-less degrees. There can be no academic freedom inside financial dependence on government treasuries. The prize is financial independence and with it are tremendous virtues. Silences are loud when increments and appointments are determined by state treasuries and politicians.
The model of tenured faculty remains one of the most noteworthy fixed costs in higher education with faculty engineering themselves into curricula – sometimes for life – thus encumbering institutions’ agility to respond to a world open to ambiguity, uncertainty and not just the unknown, but also the unknowable. To taper the gap between learning and doing, universities and colleges must repackage curriculum into virtual collaborations, remote teams and higher states of self-directed learning.
Once Co-Ops were tainted. But now they have reconfigured scope. The university must explicitly require credentials to be linked to students’ lifelong learning throughout the various stages of the career ladder. This novel quasi-fringe pedagogy of experiential lifelong learning is central to the new value proposition. Universities will need to stimulate fluency in humanities and arts as artificial intelligence is unleashed to augment the limits of our species. Humans are capable of contradictory impulses, and it is the arts that will allow humans to surpass machines.
Universities will defend their focus on dormitories and dining commons. But the spiralling decline in enrollment aggravates the stress on a predominantly fixed-cost infrastructure which only further underscores the deleterious characteristics of a vertically integrated campus. The top 0.1% capture more wealth than the bottom 80%. The uber-rich are not alarmed by this level of income inequality. They have done well. For them – Life is so rich. Once amazing opportunities were given to ordinary minds – the unremarkables. If we don’t continue to give these opportunities, then the biggest losers will be ordinary people. The plantation fretwork prototype must now transition to a different value proposition.