The Technology led disruption is about to happen in Higher Education

online-learning-1Higher education has been a ticket to social and economic success from the time of establishment of University of Bologna in 1088 and Paris in 1150. Its model has been largely the same for over nine hundred years. Secluded campuses, impressive buildings, a largely homogeneous student body, concentration of academic talent and classrooms punctuated with tests and quizzes have always defined the university experience.

It was largely a privilege of the few and helped in perpetuating elitism until the middle of the last century, when large-scale universal testing resulted in merit getting precedence over birth. This was the first disruption.

The last fifty years have seen a quantum jump in the demand for higher education owing to globalization and democratization of the society.

At the same time the inherent limitations of the university model like physical campuses, hostels and classroom teaching to small groups have put a barrier on the number of students that universities can produce. This has led to high demand, astronomical competition and steep fees for the elite institutions. On the other hand there has been a proliferation of universities of unacceptable quality to meet the demand.

Today for most university degrees, at best, the return on education is debatable and at worst, as in India, most of the courses are virtually worthless except being empty rituals.

Technology Enters

This is where technology is destined to play a disruptive role.

As we have seen in a succession of industries like music, travel and retailing, internet is going to completely disrupt the higher education market forever. The global market for higher education is estimated at $300 billion with 80 million students and around 3.5 million teaching and support staff. In the words of Clayton Christenssen, the market is  ‘ripe for a disruption’.

The online courses have started riding on their innate advantages and the solutions that brick and mortar classrooms just can’t provide.

Without the necessity for investments in physical infrastructure, technology enables courses to be delivered at a low cost. The reach is of course many times more. They enable increasingly larger segments of population like single mothers and working professionals the flexibility to engage in education at their convenience rather than getting tied to a particular place, commute or time. The tools of online learning like interactive quizzes, wikis, videos, social network boards help in deeper understanding at customized paces of the individual. There is also incipient evidence that online interactive learning at an individualized pace is more effective for learning than classroom courses. There is some skepticism around this but we can expect the doubts to slowly weaken over time.

Application of knowledge is more important than rote-based theoretical learning in a complex and rapidly changing world. Online courses, with the flexibility of time, better analytical inputs through technology and interactive modules promote precisely that.

The Impact

Consider the evidence. In 2012 two Stanford professors launched a for-profit enterprise Coursera with a $16mn funding. Their venture instantly became a hit and started shaking up the education market. Today it proudly boasts of 4 million students.

In 2012 Udacity which caters to Mathematics and Science was launched. It offers a Masters in Computer Science at $7000.

Harvard and MIT along with 26 other universities run edX.

A consortium of primarily British universities called Futurelearn is starting this year. Similarly others like Straighterline, Khan Academy in various ways are delivering and enabling millions across the world to get high quality education at a fraction of the usual costs.

Professor Gregory Nagy is an eminent scholar of Greek history who believes that more dialogues between participants means better understanding and more refined scholarship on the immortal traditions of Iliad and Odyssey. He could not have asked for more than when he got 31000 students for his course on the ancient Greek Hero. Similarly a course by Anant Agarwal, a professor in MIT, has attracted 160,000 students. These are numbers of truly game changing portions.

All this happened in less than two years.

Crystal Ball

Technology and globalization will accelerate these trends in higher education.

There will be a smaller cluster of top-of-line, global universities with the best talent that will not only educate their campus students but also act as feeders of knowledge to a much larger global student population. Some experts put this number at less than 50 such universities in 2050.

The mass university model of today will be under tremendous pressure. Going forward, existing universities will have to specialize or provide something of unique value to be of some relevance.

Most universities will move to a hybrid of online and classroom teaching. We will also see collaborations on courses and hybrid courses between universities i.e. a student will take part of the courses from one university and the second part from another and then finally get a certificate of merit from a third body. Credit transfers will become the norm.

With the proliferation of online courses and hybrid models, there will be more universal end-of-course testing models. Entrepreneurs will play a big role in education as they have done in so many other industries.

The twin goals of education in the 21st century of mass access and excellence will be best served by these technological revolutions and innovation from entrepreneurs.


Indian university system with its outdated curriculum, ossified rule-bound thinking and poor quality will have to completely reinvent itself to stay relevant.

India is one of the fastest adopters of these courses and edX gets its second highest number of students from India.

It is time for the conventional university system to respond as it can only delay the onslaught of these forces through regulatory controls but there is no doubt which way the wind is blowing.

Salil-Sahu(About Author : Salil Sahu is responsible for running HSIL, a part of Wadhawan Retail Limited.  He has extensive experience in Sales, Marketing, Strategy and General Management and has spent the last 10 years in P&L management. He has worked in Wipro, Heinz, Shaw Wallace and a start-up and has been part of many pioneering initiatives.)

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