Disintermediation: The Future of Higher Education (Part II)

(Continued from part-I)

– Sh. Rajiv Malhotra

The single most important trend that is revolutionizing education is information technology, especially the internet. Teaching platforms like the Khan Academy are the wave of the future, not the physical classroom in a brick and mortar building. The old-fashioned teacher is being squeezed out along with the physical classroom. The total cost of higher education in the US is estimated to exceed $500 billion annually, using the old delivery models. Many administrators in major universities are worried that their institutions are becoming like the dinosaurs. A disruption is long overdue and we should see this as an opportunity for creative entrepreneurship. This may be seen as a part of the wider trend in dis-intermediation (bypassing of the middleman) taking place in various industries.

  • The new cloud-based teaching methods are rapidly threatening the old school systems in many ways, such as the following:
  • Huge campuses are becoming obsolete. In the future, the buildings required will be mostly those with laboratories and high-tech infrastructure that cannot become virtual. The ordinary classroom will become almost extinct.
  • Old teaching materials are already obsolete. The teacher’s class notes that were once written on the board or handed out in class are now a waste of time because all that is readily available online. With video conferencing, considerable interaction is also available without physical meetings.
  • This trend will lower tuitions significantly because it is not necessary to hire full-time faculty.
  • This also changes the demand side of university professors and impacts the future of academicians as a profession. Many subject matter experts who are not formally classified as professors will be teaching part-time and sharing their knowledge and practical experience. The old style professor with limited real world experience will be replaced by learned persons who will also bring their lived experience to teach.
  • All this means an end to the ivory tower academic snobbery of the past, in which there was great prestige associated with being a professor disconnected from mundane life. Now the floodgates are opening for teaching that is brought by knowledgeable individuals who are embedded within communities and who also speak as voices of the community.
  • Higher education will be a lifelong pursuit and not limited to a few years of college/university. Most workers will take online courses as a regular part of staying current with the trends in their field. Education will be seen as something you do all your life and for which you do not need necessarily to take several years off.

While the above list of changes pertains to the teaching side of higher education, there are equally revolutionary changes expected in the research side, especially in the humanities. Let us discuss religious studies in the US academy, as an example.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first started monitoring and intervening in the American academic research on Hinduism, the academic fortress was a formidable center of power. To make any impact, it was crucial to get inside the system one way or another. But today, an increasing amount of high quality scholarly works are being published by scholars and practitioners outside the walls of the academic fortress. Many guru movements have their own writings and publishing houses. The new works produced by Hindu movements are not only about standard topics like Bhagavad Gita, but also pertain to issues of society, politics, family, health, etc. Many other groups started by civic society now nurture non-academic research and publishing. These new suppliers are seen as threats to the turf traditionally controlled by the academicians. The academic empire is fighting back, but it is a losing battle. (I am an example of someone seen as a threat to the officially credentialed producers of knowledge about my culture.)

The number of readers who receive their knowledge about religion from sources outside the academy far exceeds the number who are sitting in class to learn from their professor. The American academicians refused to accept this trend during the past two decades when I tried to explain it to them. They were too arrogant to be open to this new reality. The pride of being the exclusive source of knowledge had been instilled in them during their PhD, and was seen as their ticket to success that could never be taken away. This attitude of the senior professors has misguided the new generation of academicians, and made the academic system insular and vulnerable.

Today, most people get their knowledge about religions (their own and those of others) through television, online sources, personal travels to sacred and holy sites, teachings from their gurus and swamis, and reading materials published by non-academic writers. If someone wants to invest in spreading particular ideas about our traditions, the investment is better spent on such platforms and not on feeding the old system which is rapidly becoming obsolete. Instead, they should rethink the dynamics of this intellectual kurukshetra of civilizational discourse. Only then can they develop a more viable strategy for interventions.

Indians have in the past bought used technologies and obsolete models in certain industries, at a time when the Western countries exporting these were migrating to new paradigms. I feel many of us are being fooled into investing in what is rapidly becoming an obsolete model of higher education.

Instead of funding American higher education’s pre-internet era system, India should develop the next generation platforms. And India should not be content with a back-office role in this emerging industry, but should develop and own the brands seen by the end users (i.e. the students). Besides developing the platforms and delivery systems, Indians should also lead in content development and educational methodology, especially in areas where traditional Indian systems would give us a competitive advantage.

There are also examples where unethical opportunism is driving the disintermediation. For example, China is disintermediating the R&D centers of the West by stealing intellectual property. They take the lead in implementing others’ discoveries. We can argue about the ethics, but this is a ground reality shaping our world. The examples of disintermediation I am proposing in education are perfectly ethical and should be seen as natural evolution. The age of disintermediation is upon us. It is important to ride this wave rather than avoid it out of fear or ignorance.

– Sh. Rajiv Malhotra, Member, Board, WAVES-USA

3 thoughts on “Disintermediation: The Future of Higher Education (Part II)

  1. Rajivji, this is very timely and nicely lists the main points. Perhaps it is time to survey the initial attempts at implementation, both abroad and inside India. Indians have certainly taken to the idea of (overt and covert) fee–based “higher education” (or is it “Hire Education”?) It has not, in my opinion, been a success, at least in professional education. Numerous medical and engineering colleges have (been) shut down due to sheer abysmal quality, and well-deserved customer desertion. One huge issue was, and continues to be the issue of “lecturer” vs. “professor”. “Teaching” has been reduced to something that is easily automated, and separated between the Content Generation, Media Generation, and Presentation functions, each farmed out to a specialist. Back in 1996 I learned to use the Internet when I had 2 weeks off due to the Olympics being on our campus. I started putting everything I know into the ‘Net, and in due course had a rather massive cross-disciplinary Digital Library (failed attempt to get NSF funding… but mine outlasted all the ones that they funded with some $50M) Eventually a $1 NASA grant enabled me to test out a refined model to answer the question: “How will you educate aerospace engineers to innovate in a hugely complex system?” Having retired now, believe that I can take my notes generated in 36 years of learning, and have them “delivered” by, say, the voice of Jack Nicholson – or Lata Mangeshkar, and the visage of someone far more telegenic than I. This is E-Z. But.. someone like me can still take interested students and show them how much further they can reach, than even they believed – and often over their pessimism. This is the function of the professor as teacher. It goes far beyond memorizing notes to pass exams. And, sorry, I have no interest in delivering that sort of all-out 24-365 effort, for the pay that the Future University plans to pay its “Teachers”, nor under the sort of Administrations that come with those. The US system enabled this, in the Good Old Days (of the Cold War!) because of the magic of hard-won, Federal/Industry Sponsored Research, not any largesse from Donors. We did ‘win’ the Cold War and other wars where our students were intensely involved, because they were taught that there only two types in war: Winners and Targets. No “third-best”.
    My point is that there is a vast difference between “Delivering Courses” to win accreditation and sell degrees – and really really guiding learners to disciplined, rigorous, world-beating excellence. If India goes for the former at the expense of the latter, in the name of “disruptive technology”, she will have got on the wrong train, like my dear classmates who got on the train to Kashmir thinking that it was going to Khajuraho (both started with “K” which is all they bothered to read).
    The main feature of ancient Indian learning at its best, was the dedicated Guru who taught by “Upanishad”, guiding at every step. The really disruptive technology is that which will enable this, with each student (of thousands?) feeling that s(he) gets a totally tailored education from someone who takes the effort to ‘see’ into their brains and guides them to excellence. And inspires them to “Be Far More Than They Thought They Could Ever Be”. Let us figure out how to do that?


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