How Technology Will Change Entry-Level Higher Education

This guest post originally appeared in Wired

For years, “invest in education” has been a mantra consistently repeated to students and parents worldwide. It is now a phrase that VCs and entrepreneurs know, as technological solutions to some of education’s greatest challenges are gaining attention. As anyone in higher education is aware, the industry faces some intimidating issues, including affordability, accessibility, quality, and the momentum necessary to create system-wide change. Some of the field’s best minds are already hard at work to address tuition and access — and entrepreneurs and investors are also seeing the opportunity to replace traditional media with new technology that better serves today’s students. Ultimately, the investments being made in educational technology will lead to huge benefits down the road for students, their families and the economy.

Disruption in the Classroom

Let’s look outside of education for a moment. Entrepreneurs and the tech community have a reputation for disrupting some of the world’s largest industries in a meaningful way. Take, for example, Elon Musk’s work with Tesla Motors. Where traditional auto manufacturers needed a long time to bring fully electric cars to the market, citing issues with infrastructure and engineering, Musk saw things differently. By leveraging the strengths of an electric car, such as acceleration and handling, he created a fundamentally different and better car that’s a convincing case for investing in the infrastructure needed to support others like it., Similarly, the biotech industry has blown up in the last two decades, redefining healthcare and advancing health-sciences. We’re even beginning to understand the human genome well enough to detect potential health risks before they even exist.

Higher education is no different than the automotive industry or healthcare – our industry has incredible importance and power. With a mix of entrepreneurs and technologists keenly focused on a generation of students that are more socially networked, digitally fluent and tech savvy, education is quickly becoming the next “hot” sector for innovation. 

Back to 101

The tech community is already hard at work disrupting higher education from all sorts of angles. In fact, we’ve been making progress already. It’s been years since classrooms introduced digital platforms like SMART Boards to create more traction in teaching students. More recently, MOOCs such as Coursera have changed the way students attend class by moving entire classrooms into a digital format, expanding access to top professors and subjects. If physical space isn’t a constriction – what other ways can we streamline learning?

Innovation is just beginning within the terrestrial college campus and I think the next opportunity lies in introductory courses. 101 courses are the building blocks upon which college students learn a new subject, discover interests, and set a course of study. They instill foundational learnings that students use to develop expertise in their chosen field. For the investors of the world, the market for the 101 is huge — colleges and universities require students to complete introductory classes to meet graduation requirements, so college-educated students of all majors and in all fields will most likely take a 101 course at some point. That includes the creative writing major with a math requirement, or the science whiz in an English course.

On top of this, 101s are often delivered in a one-size-fits-all approach due to the basic nature of the subject matter presented. Students often must decide for themselves when and how to connect with TAs, professors and advisors to overcome difficult concepts, identify potential further interest and find successful techniques that help them succeed faster. These are the types of issues — essentially shortening the feedback loop — that technology (specifically software) has been solving in the business world for years now. How can we change the way students interact with materials to make them better, faster learners? How do we give students better, consistent feedback on progress? This is where technology can make its impact.

A New Semester in Higher Ed

With the 101, higher education has fertile ground for innovation. There’s a big market, a need for content delivery, and a benefit from higher performance analytics – it’s the classic scenario for technology to bring improvement.

Right now MOOCs are addressing market, content and feedback issues from a classroom format perspective. Adaptive learning tools are tackling studying and information delivery to help students move through material in the best order, testing and delivering the right content and questions along the way. Spaced repetition, in conjunction with high-quality content, will improve fact-based learning. I — and my company, Boundless – believe that students will move away from paying for textbooks, and instead, pay for tools that help them master material. Sooner than we think textbooks will no longer exist and professors will focus on teaching the highest value content, letting students use technology to master basic facts and know where they stand.

As technology continues to filter into higher ed and address some of the challenges at play, I believe that more students will have access to the amazing research and brilliant minds that higher ed has to offer.  I’m hopeful that the technology community will step up and continue to deliver tools and platforms that help students, professors and institutions gain more choice in the cost and accessibility of educational content. Just as college students have to start from the beginning, the technology community should start with the 101 to catalyze further change in higher ed.