Higher Education · E-Learning

Will University’s eventually go ALL online?

Nate Holbrook Founder / CEO at Lilac

November 29th, 2015

With the increase of Education startups revolutionizing the Education space what are others take on whether or not universities will be all online in 10 years or so? And if this were to happen what that will mean for their business model & prestige? Will that be lost

John Sharp CEO at Hatcher

December 1st, 2015

I hope "University's" eventually all go online... because then perhaps we will all be able to go back to spelling things correctly... as in "Universities"!


December 1st, 2015

How about some facts in this discussion? :-) 

MIT started one of the first (if not the first) MOOC (online classes) in 2006 or so. They wanted to stay at that forefront of the digital revolution, so they uploaded all of their classes. Course material, notes, exams, audio, video, etc. Whatever they had. They did this for all faculties. MIT has courses in engineering, economics, languages, theater, urban planning, and yes, women's studies. Some 20-30 areas. All of it is at MIT OpenCourseware.

To promote this, they got a Google Foundation Grant (one million US dollars) to be spent in Google Adwords. I've managed that grant since the beginning.

I set up a global campaign in 14 languages, which are all of the main European languages, along with Chinese, Russian, and Japanese. I also included Korean and Arabic. Ads appear in 130 countries. There are around 5,000 keywords in 1,100 adgroups with 2,000 ads.

This campaign has up to now 530 million ad impressions, 11.7 million clicks (visits) at an average of US$0.12 per click (that's the lifetime average; the average for the last few years is around US$0.07 per click). So far, I've spent about US$1.5m.

At first, my target audience was anyone who wanted to learn about engineering, economics, etc. But in meetings with teachers, I discovered that it's more useful to target teachers. If I reach a student, she can take a few courses for a year or two. But if I reach a teacher, the teacher will use the material for her class syllabus (her class outline and materials), which means she'll reach 50-100 students. Teachers tend to use the same syllabus for ten years, so if I reach one teacher, I've reached perhaps 1,000 students. So I created 72 adgroups with 550 keywords for teachers.

The results: MIT estimates more than four million people have used Opencourseware course materials. 

Furthermore, MIT used their experience and leadership to create a consortium of universities around the world (Japan, France, Germany, US, etc.) which offer their courses online. I doubt that one could overestimate the impact: this means tens of millions of people are using online courses for free.

So... will MOOCs replace universities? That question was valid perhaps 15 years ago, but it's irrelevant now. 

- MOOCs are widespread and have a tremendous impact on education. Much of it is invisible (very likely, some of you took classes where your course material came from a teacher who got it from MIT which she found via my Google ad campaign). 

For-profit colleges such as University of Phoenix (and Trump U :-) are trivial. They aren't at the level of MIT with its global reach and a consortium of hundreds of universities.

- MOOCs are not replacing universities. They have become part of universities. Just as large corporations defend themselves from startups by acquiring the startups, universities are offering online courses.

- This opens opportunities. Students who can afford to study and live at MIT can do so; students in Azerbaijan, Nicaragua, central India, western China, and Louisiana can also learn from MIT courses in engineering, economics, and so on. People will find and choose the access that works for them. 


Peter Johnston Businesses are composed of pixels, bytes & atoms. All 3 change constantly. I make that change +ve.

December 1st, 2015

Universities aren't about teaching. They are about getting picked.

If you get picked by a top University and successfully complete the tasks they set you, that tells everyone around you that you are special. And they give you a badge - a very expensive badge, to confirm your new status.

To create Universities, they moved aside a powerful system based on skills - craftsmen guilds - and replaced it with one based purely on knowledge. Powerful guilds still exist, doctors, for example.

The problem is that they never evolved the system of conferring knowledge and printing chipped away at it, then radio, then TV. Now the whole system has been swept away by the internet which unlocks the information and makes it available free to all.

A second part of this was that knowledge didn't scale. The original plan of gathering students around a learned man, became a problem when more people wanted to learn - there weren't enough brilliant men to go round. The whole experience got diluted as the lecture rooms got larger and larger. Teacher training worked at lower levels but not at high. The result is a few good universities and a lot of bad ones.

The last thing to consider is what is all this learning for? If you take the skills of the top hundred doctors and put them into a machine, you will create a surgeon of skill greater than any human who has ever been. This will be coupled with eyes infinitely better than ours, hands/tools which can work more finely and sensors which can monitor many more vital signs. Surgery is being transformed, but the result is that no level of University training will enable a person to outdo the next generation of machines.

Learning will indeed go online. But the badge will not follow. That is a tribes thing - he's an Oxford man, or a Stanford man. It will just become increasingly irrelevant. And just as we reinvented our value systems when we stopped doing manual labour for a living, we will create a whole layer of non-jobs.

Go into any University these days and there will be none of the "getting people ready to work in a big corporate" which there was in the sixties. Instead the focus is on impact in the third world and "making a difference". A whole generation of students is being packed off to disrupt the economies of Africa.

Meanwhile the rest of us will find new ways of assessing relative merit. And the factor Malcolm Gladwell talked of where people get picked, then get better training so they actually are better will break down.

Michael Barnathan

November 29th, 2015

I've been one of the dissenters on this topic: no, I think there is still valuable learning to be done when groups of people assemble in the same place to work on common problems, in communication with professors/other appropriate mentors. However, implicit in that statement are a few other changes to the structure of the university that I *do* believe will happen to keep them relevant:

1. Groups of people solving problems. Think "accelerator experience".
2. Same place. Doesn't have to be a school building, just a common area. Could be a Starbucks, or something like General Assembly.
3. "In communication" could be a Skype/Hangout.
4. Mentors from the community in addition to or even instead of a professor.

The university will have to change simply because the existing model no longer provides most people with a consistent economic benefit that exceeds their tuition (root cause: degrees have become too uniform and too universal; students must now seek additional differentiators). The original purpose of personal enrichment / learning to create a more enlightened populace unfortunately isn't popular enough to keep schools in business now that they've expanded to the size they've reached - people want something tangible from it.

When you view the university through that lens, online vs. offline doesn't seem like a particularly important distinction - at least for those from populated areas where schools are dense.

There's another component of what a university does, which is research - but that's a whole separate can of worms.

Lydia Sugarman Entrepreneur. CEO + Non-Technical Founder. Seeker. Thinker. Drinker of bourbon.

December 1st, 2015

Whatever happens, I hope grammar and spelling improves over that in the headline of this discussion! If the person posing the question is a college graduate, s/he got a very bad deal on his/her education.

Peter Johnston Businesses are composed of pixels, bytes & atoms. All 3 change constantly. I make that change +ve.

December 1st, 2015

There is another consideration here.
When TV came out, the educated classes told everyone it was dumbing down. But in hindsight it is easy to see it was educating people. We all understand the natural world from David Attenborough. The Universe from Stephen Hawking. And even life from soaps - it is no coincidence that crime fell by 30% since TV happened.

The internet is creating something very special. The connected generation - some call it the YouTube generation. They know how to program by age 10. How to be  a developer by age 12. Entrepreneur by age 15. And by age 18, they can have any of us for breakfast. It is happening.

These kids don't need degrees. They create their own online proof of their abilities - they don't need certificates or any proof that they are up to standard - they prove that themselves, through their work.
And that is increasingly the case. People leave a digital footprint if they are good - papers, blogs, contributions to threads.

Universities are so far out of date they don't even realise the size of the disconnect. Meanwhile they are subsidy farming like mad and governments are so stupid they are allowing them - after all they are the result of these Universities and this system - the old boy network holds good.

Michael Barnathan

December 1st, 2015

All of our eventuallies are going online, why not university's, too? :)


November 29th, 2015

Just from a practical perspective, most universities have made large capital investments in equipment that is essential to many types of academic learning (especially in the STEM subjects). Basically, those laboratories with expensive equipment and with skilled training are impossible to replicate virtually. Almost all of the STEM courses have some location-specific demands.

More of the typical liberal arts can be done remotely but therein lies some of the challenge and, perhaps, the answer -- it's the liberal arts students who typically struggle most (in the current world) to get a quick ROI on their college education investment. 

The rest of the arguments I don't buy so much (e.g., networking, collaborations etc). Future generations who've grown up with different technologies are obviously going to network and collaborate differently from anyone today -- face to face may not hold much appeal or benefit for them. That remains to be seen but it's not a given that it will be THE reason for students to relocate for a university education.

Philip Segal Paid Search (PPC), Paid Social & Analytics Specialist

December 1st, 2015

Wow, for a site full of forward-thinking entrepreneurs, there sure are a lot of answers that sound like "nonsense, the earth is definitely flat."

Perhaps the specific way the question is asked is leading the answers; maybe the better question is, in 10-20 years, will *most* of the students who would have gone to physical universities instead acquire *most or all* of their education online?

I think the answer to that question is about assure of a "yes" as anything that has not yet come to pass.

The simple fact is that the average lecture can easily be replaced with technology - ie. Independent of location and even asynchronously - and with the cost savings inherent in that way versus the current way of doing things, it's an inevitability as culture begins to accept it (just as more and more jobs will move towards remote work as the "in office from 9 to 5" assumption continues to give way).

Add this basic concept to the fact that the government has blown up the student loan bubble with cheap financing that has allowed universities to exponentially increase their prices, which has already made a basic education a negative ROI proposition in *today's world* - this fact just hasn't been acknowledged by most who still believe that a college degree is a requirement for professional success.

And the clincher: add to the mix technologies on the horizon that will allow us to have a virtual presence (like a hologram) and gather people from all over the world in the "same room" and the idea of having to be in the same place at the same time as the same group of people for 4+ years in order to learn becomes an absurd notion.

Sure, there are other benefits of the university experience, but that's not generally what we pay for. In past years we've paid up front (or gone into significant debt) in exchange for a near certainty of coming out ahead of our less educated peers. Once the actual education is democratized with technology... well, we can find our own places to gather with the "top 20% of intellectuals" to have the "social experience" of guzzling beer and having promiscuous sex, which is basically the other side of most people's college experience.

Yassine Elkaryani Managing Partner at Mercy Tech Consulting

December 1st, 2015

There's currently no substitute to classroom interaction.

Online education requires a level of discipline that most of us do not have.

Let's just ask how many people are able to timely finish their preparation for CPA or PMP tests, or even the rate of people who are able to timely finish a class on udemy or skillshare.

Not many.