By David Bardolet
Higher education is undergoing one of the most profound transformations in decades, driven by the adoption of digital technology. The Covid pandemic has accelerated this transformation, by forcing online education across the world. Moreover, digital disruption has brought a host of new players to the online space, to compete with the renewed digital efforts of more traditional institutions. As a consequence, students find themselves facing an embarrassment of riches in terms of higher education choices, both offline and online. While navigating that expanded set of choices, students also find themselves re-examining questions that seemed quite settled until very recently. Questions about the right degree to kickstart or advance one’s career, or about the specific skills to learn, or the best school or format to learn do not have as clear answers as they had just years ago.
So, while a larger set of choices has brought increased freedom and new learning opportunities, it has also brought a more complex decision process, in particular when it comes to choosing between offline and online programs. To better understand how to navigate that debate, it is helpful to divide the benefits of a higher education programme into two groups. First, there are the short-term benefits, like the classroom and campus experience, the placement opportunities offered, and the price, all associated with the “delivery” part of a program. Second, there are long-term benefits, like the reputational effects of the degree and the degree-giving institution, the professional network acquired, and, finally and most importantly, the skills and knowledge acquired in the program. This second group of benefits is associated with the “content” part of a program.
With that distinction in mind, we observe that so far, online education has been heavily focused on innovating on the delivery part. Online players have mostly “unbundled” the content of traditional programs and re-packaged it in more convenient and affordable formats. The virtual environment also offers a more convenient self-paced delivery option, with on-demand sessions that can fit any schedule. And on top of all that, online higher education comes at a fraction of the cost, both in terms of fees and in terms of not having to travel to a distant campus (this cost efficiency, by the way, is already having a wonderful impact in terms of affordability and more equal access to higher education, which is something worth celebrating). However, online educational offers are still very much a question mark in their ability to innovate on the content part and thus provide better long-term benefits (or at least not worse) than traditional programs. We only need to browse a few online programs to realize that the content taught there is still very much the same one that has been taught for decades, simply adapted to the virtual environment and quite often in a less-than-optimal manner. Moreover, the new business models brought by new digital players lack the capability to generate new content since they mostly rely on aggregating external sources and thus are very lean in terms of faculty and research. There is a very promising opportunity in this area to leverage digital technology to create individually customized content, adapted to each student’s level of knowledge and learning goals as well as each student’s learning style. That is, in the future, every student should have their own personally designed higher education program. Although a good number of schools—ours, SDA Bocconi, amongst them—and startups are busy devising tools to generate that kind of content, this part is still years away from becoming a reality.
So how should students address today’s challenge of increased choices? I believe it requires three elements. First, a change of mindset. Higher education should not be a discrete decision in the early years but rather a lifelong, continuous learning process. In that lifelong path, there should be ample space for multiple programs formats, some of them “transformational,” like a full-time in-presence Master programs in the early years, and some of them “additive,” like, for example, a short online course to crack a new technology or to refine a leadership skill. Second, it requires building what Minhea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas call a “personal learning cloud”, that is, a collection of offline and online sources of learning from which one can pick the best option at any point of that lifelong learning journey. Many companies are already adopting this practice by creating “corporate learning clouds” for their employees. Third, it requires tools that can help the student map out a personalized learning path according to her professional needs and career plan as well as her specific learning abilities and constraints. While we wait for sophisticated digital algorithms to do just that, relying on time-tested brands and on the advice of people with a good understanding of what digital higher education can and cannot deliver is still the best solution.
The author of this article is associate professor of practice, strategy and entrepreneurship, SDA Bocconi School of Management, SDA Bocconi Asia Center. Views expressed are personal.