Blog: The Educated Reporter

Start-Ups Gamble on Higher Education Innovations

There’s a provocative piece in the latest issue of Washington Monthly from Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, in which he takes a deep look at how a new spirit of digital entrepreneurship is changing the higher education landscape.

By investing (relatively) smaller dollar amounts in larger numbers of start-ups, venture capitalists are improving the odds that someone will come up with the Next Big Idea. If they fail on the first try, the investment was modest enough that there’s no harm, no foul. And the entrepreneurs can more easily switch gears and try something completely different, a process known as “fail faster,” which Carey describes as “a crucial idea in an ecosystem driven by experimentation and groping around for the new new thing.”

While the start-ups might be small, the potential profits are not. Education technology companies raked in $400 million last year, according to Carey’s reporting. It’s worth noting here there’s a fair amount of concern — and skepticism — as to how effectively these companies are improving quality of instruction and opportunity for their students.

The experimentation in virtual learning is hardly limited to entrepreneurs. More colleges and universities — from M.I.T. to the University of Pennsylvania to Stanford — are now offering courses described as “open source” or “MOOCs ” (massive open online courses), which are typically offered free of charge.

It’s too early to tell whether that approach will have a long-term effect on higher education. David Youngberg, an assistant professor of economics at Bethany College, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that MOOCs are “the nose rings of higher education,” and that employers typically avoid “weird people” who seek unconventional routes to advanced degrees. However, open-source courses could crack open a window for some learners who might otherwise be shut out. Even if that window is only virtual, it’s still hard to find a downside to that.


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