The Changing Landscape of Higher Ed

By Carol Elliott | Fall 2014

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“It’s bad if you’re running a local or regional MBA or executive education program,” said Byrne, commenting on b-schools specifically. “Really bad, and scary.”

Students who might have settled for a local program for logistics’ sake can now seek out superior coursework online, essentially stitching together a better quality and maybe cheaper education. Small private colleges—who already are having problems making their business models work as student debt and loan defaults climb, and their graduates’ career ROIs are uncertain or downright awful—are expected to face bankruptcy in record numbers. 

Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School predicted that fate for more than 50 percent of U.S. universities in the next 15 years; Richard Lyons, dean of University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business likewise posited that technology could close half of the U.S. b-schools in as little as five years.

To MOOC, or not to MOOC

However. Just as about any sizable upheaval results in winners and losers, the digital revolution certainly offers some distinct opportunities to universities with the vision and resources to take advantage of them. 

Elliott Visconsi, Notre Dame Chief Academic Digital Officer,
also spends a fair amount of time talking to deans of peer schools, as well as some of the leading vendors in digital
education services, such as Pearson Vue and edX. In the current higher education digital landscape, he points to Harvard and Wharton as the most aggressive players. 

Through its digital learning platform HBX, Harvard Business School recently launched CORe (Credential of Readiness), a “pre-program” for college juniors and seniors, non-business graduate students and those in their early careers designed to introduce business fundamentals through three interlinked courses. 

A year ago, Wharton added three business fundamentals MOOCs to its existing offerings on platform Coursera, essentially offering up its first-year MBA courses for free. There are also well-ranked b-schools, including University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler and IU’s Kelley School of Business, that have launched wholly online MBA degree programs.

Visconsi views online learning as being primarily about the benefit, not as a driver. “We don’t want to make MOOCs just to make MOOCs,” he said. “We want to use the occasion of the platform and its afforded benefits to build great on-campus experiences.”

Put another way, Visconsi describes the value of online courses as augmentative to the campus experience, not as a substitute. He paints a very positive picture of the possibilities of digital learning to enrich the Notre Dame learning experience. 

“There is a lot of research that tells us we can help different styles of learners, and we can help students thrive if we give them resources that they can then access repeatedly or remotely,” he said. Online platforms also present the possibility of a “virtuous circle” of learning feedback, because they can deliver a lot of information about how a particular student is learning. Faculty can better help students address weak areas or find better study habits.

The likely digital education model in the near future for Notre Dame will be the “flipped” classroom, where a professor puts some of the more basic or foundational material online so class time can be devoted to debate and lively interaction. Another option that takes advantage of both online and on-campus resources are blended degrees, where some significant portion of the coursework is completed online. This allows a student to complete a degree more quickly, which means less time—if any—out of the workforce. 

Visconsi also noted the swelling international demand for higher education, particularly from China and India. Whereas universities previously had to make significant investments and face formidable logistics in delivering education internationally with bricks-and-mortar locations, online platforms allow schools to deliver programs in a vast geographic area to a burgeoning global audience. 


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