The Changing Landscape of Higher Ed

By Carol Elliott | Fall 2014

A few short years ago, universities were buying up virtual campuses with real money in Second Life (SL), a three-dimensional online platform that some educators believed promised a brave new world in higher education. 

Borrowing heavily from gaming culture, SL proponents envisioned students teleporting around campus “islands,” selecting from a virtual automat of classes, even socializing with fellow avatars on the campus quad. If you wanted to recreate your virtual self as a blue-skinned, three-eyed, mohawked avatar named Snark the Destroyer, fine. The point of SL was not to replace the traditional campus, but to offer possibilities for expanding higher education in ways that physical universities couldn’t by making learning flexible, accessible, global and cheap.

And then … none of that happened. Second Life still exists, but it’s a virtual ghost town, like one of those sprawling abandoned subdivisions disintegrating in the desert outside Vegas, where the reality never lived up to the hype. 

Today, the same media outlets that heralded Second Life as the Next Big Thing are talking about developments such as MOOCs (Massively Open Online Course), flipped classrooms and specialty degrees as the New Next Big Things in higher education.

In this age of disruptive innovation, where we’ve seen seismic changes in bedrock industries such as newspapers, publishing, music and telecommunications, just to name a very few, what is the future of the b-school?

Doomsday, but not for everyone

On September 17, John Byrne, founder of the highly popular website Poets & Quants, wrote a blog post about the future of the MBA degree that included the subtitle, “A Doomsday Scenario?” The post presented some informed musings about what the impact of innovations in technology might mean to the traditional MBA program.

Byrne will tell you up front that he’s a big believer in higher ed, especially business schools. In fact, as part of his long career as a journalist covering b-schools, he was the one who originally created the BusinessWeek ranking of MBA programs in 1988. He later introduced BW’s ranking of Executive MBA programs, and then undergraduate. His current site is devoted to profiling schools and in-depth analysis of industry trends, as well as publishing its own set of rankings. 

“It’s a rare week when I’m not on the phone or in person interviewing several deans of business schools, directors of MBA programs or several admissions people,” said Byrne. “And I’m asking them the questions that are on everyone’s mind. What impact ultimately will technology have on the field? Not only as a force for market destruction, but also as a force to improve the efficiency of the education and improve the learning outcome. 

“And you know there’s widespread fear, but little agreement over how all that will play out.”

And there are myriad factors in play. The Economist, which has published a series of articles in the past year that examine the future of universities, pointed to three major “disruptive waves” speeding to shore: a faltering business model, changing demands of the workplace and—looming over all—a technological revolution. 

None of these forces is discrete, with clear analytic frameworks attached that render bulleted action plans. It’s more accurate to think of them as intertwined and evolving. 

In his “doomsday” blog post, Byrne spins out perhaps the most dramatic of scenarios, where lectures, discussions and homework assignments are all delivered online; professors will be more like free-agent athletes seeking to capitalize on their personal brands rather than university affiliations; curricula will be unbundled so that students take classes from any number of providers (think automat); and degrees will be quaint notions instead of recognized and valued authentications of knowledge. 


But for all of the end-of-higher-ed-as-we-know-it headlines and quotes regularly published on P&Q, Byrne himself has a fairly nuanced view. For starters, he doesn’t think that online education will cause traditional on-campus programs to go the way of Second Life—or at least not all. 

“My sense is that the best schools with the great brands, like Notre Dame, the Vanderbilts, the Emorys and the Georgetowns, and then further up the chain on the public education side—UNC, Michigan or Virginia—are going to be fine,” said Byrne. “First off, most of these schools have incredible tentacles into the business community, and those connections and relationships are going to work to protect those brands.”

Plus there’s a premium value to an on-campus educational experience, not the least of which is access to a loyal alumni network and the opportunity for internships. 

The Economist agreed with Byrne’s assessment that the disruptive innovations will not affect all schools—or even all programs—in the same ways. In a story published in June, the magazine looked at the potential impact of digital degree programs and concluded “the universities least likely to lose out to online competitors are elite institutions with established reputations and low student-to-tutor ratios.”

So where does doomsday come in?


“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. 

Notre Dame has gone through a few iterations with its digital offerings. Two for-credit undergraduate courses were available through SemesterOnline until about a year ago. The University also has maintained an iTunesU channel for at least eight years, where the various colleges and centers can post full-length lectures, podcasts and other material. 

In June, Notre Dame announced an agreement with edX, a $60 million MIT-Harvard platform that offers MOOCs for free. Visconsi said edX shares ND’s “commitment to open education in the service of the global public good.” His office recently announced four initial MOOCs with launch set for spring 2015. (See

“Whatever we do in an online or hybrid online degree program, there’s going to be an on-campus, in South Bend, component,” Visconsi said. “And a serious one, so that those students feel like they’re members of the community, not that they’re getting a paper credential.” 

Home base

As the associate dean for Graduate Business Programs, a significant part of Jeff Bergstrand’s role is to consider the disruptive forces shaping the future of higher education—b-schools, in particular—and evaluate what they might mean for Mendoza.

His starting point is always home base: Notre Dame. “This is an institution that’s steeped in tradition, and those traditions are partly based upon faith, partly upon community, which includes our physical campus,” he said. “Our faith, our community and our broader network are the pillars that we’ll always look at when defining where we are in education.”

The question becomes how Mendoza embraces digital learning and other emerging trends in ways that are consistent with the three pillars, said Bergstrand.

A recent response to a growing demographic trend has been Mendoza’s launch of three one-year specialty degree programs: the Master of Science in Management, which graduated its first class in May; and two Chicago-based part-time programs, the Master of Science in Business Analytics and the Master of Science in Finance, set to start in early 2015 (see box).

Colleges are ramping up one-year graduate specialty degree programs at a brisk rate nationwide. In part, they answer the “need for speed” for students who can’t exit the workforce for the two years needed for a traditional degree. The “specialty” aspect also addresses another emerging trend: Our work skills are becoming obsolete at a rapid rate. The Economist’s June article on the future of higher education cited a recent study by three Oxford researchers predicted that 47 percent of occupations could be automated in the next few decades. However, they also found that the odds of displacement drop sharply as educational attainment rises.

This suggests that gainful lifetime employment will increasingly mean lifetime education. For the past 50 years, most people checked off “education” after college; now, shifts in the workforce, technology and global marketplace are likely to necessitate a “learn as you go” mindset across a person’s career.

Paul Velasco is the director of the Stayer Center for Executive Education, which includes the Notre Dame Executive MBA degree, as well as custom and open-enrollment programs. He noted a shift in student expectations about a decade ago, when companies largely quit subsidizing executive degree programs and students had to shoulder more if not all of the tuition. Students became much more focused on knowledge and skills that they could take back to their office on Monday morning and apply it to their jobs, he said.

This development suggests significant opportunity for colleges and universities to provide working professionals with continuing education offerings—especially to their alumni—either in blended formats or online, said Velasco. 

Some higher ed experts also think the demand for continuing professional development might create a risk for brick-and-mortar programs, given that the executive consumer is time-crunched by definition of the position, and therefore more likely to look online.

The Stayer Center for Executive Education has offered certificate programs online for nearly a decade through Mendoza’s Nonprofit Professional Development department began offering online courses about a year ago. 

Velasco noted a couple of bottom-line facts that he keeps in mind when weighing the trends and what makes sense for Mendoza. One: “In the end, you still have to be respectful of the fact that it’s not only time away from work participants are considering but also people only have so much time, period,” he said, which applies to both classroom and online learning.

And two:

“I still remember very vividly [Marketing Professor] John Sherry looking at me in a curriculum committee meeting and saying, ‘Paul, the Notre Dame experience is special. We teach our students to care about things differently, to think about things differently.’ And he continued, ‘Be careful that you protect that.’ John’s admonition has stuck with me.”


Two new degree programs

The Mendoza College of Business is introducing two new graduate specialty degrees in early 2015. Both are intended for working professionals, with classes meeting on alternating weekends at Notre Dame’s Chicago campus on Michigan Avenue.

Master of Science in Business Analytics:  a 30-credit-hour program that provides a rigorous education in applying analytical techniques to massive data sets to solve business problems. The program will follow a blended
learning format, with about 25 percent of the material delivered online.

Master of Science in Finance:  a comprehensive 32-credit-hour program for students with diverse backgrounds seeking to advance in their current careers or to switch careers. 

For more information, visit or