Charting The Tech-Tonic Shifts In Education

A year ago, the Campus Technology 2011 conference was dominated by discussions of budget cuts and the "new normal" of decreased funding. At the 2012 conference, held in Boston this July, the talk was still about costs, but this time the focus fell on the soaring price of a college education and how institutions of higher learning are facing a seismic shift as a result. And, to judge by many of the discussions at the conference, technology will be integral to that upheaval

Indeed, it was fitting that one of the keynote speakers was George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Canada's Athabasca University. In 2008, Siemens launched the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for approximately 3,500 students, a model that has been adopted and exponentially expanded by organizations such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera.

"Today, what's under the microscope is the actual system of education itself," Siemens told the attendees. "How many people want to graduate with $100,000 to $200,000 worth of student debt? At what point do you hit that threshold where getting a degree is now more expensive than the benefit of having a degree?"

It was a message hammered home by the closing keynote speaker, Joel Smith, vice provost and CIO of Carnegie Mellon University (PA). "If you want to look at a bubble, if you want to look at a crisis coming," he said, look no further than the increase in college tuition and fees: Since 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, costs have risen nearly 600 percent, far outstripping the rise in healthcare costs. "We have a serious problem with cost containment," he noted drily.

While cost is undeniably a major component of the tremors rumbling through higher education, it is by no means the only one. For two decades now, traditional institutions have been waging a costly arms race to woo "traditional" students, who now represent less than 20 percent of the learner population.

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