Andres Kudacki, File, Associated Press
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On a warm spring evening, hundreds of investment bankers, venture capitalists and geeky tech entrepreneurs gathered near the pool of the Phoenician, a luxury resort outside Phoenix. The occasion? A high-profile gathering of education innovators, and as guests sipped cocktails and nibbled hors d'oeuvres, the mood was upbeat.
Major innovations — forged by the struggles of the Great Recession and fostered by technology — are coming to higher education.
Investment dollars are flooding in — a record-smashing 168 venture capital deals in the United States alone last year, according to conference host GSV Advisors. The computing power of "the cloud" and "big data" are unleashing new software. Public officials, desperate to cut costs and measure results, are open to change.
And everyone, it seems, is talking about MOOCs, the "Massive Open Online Courses" offered by elite universities and enrolling millions worldwide.
As with so many innovations — from the light bulb to the Internet — the technology is bubbling up mostly from the United States, fueled by American capital chasing profitable solutions to American problems. But as with those past innovations, the impact will be global. In this case, it may be even more consequential in developing countries, where mass higher education is new and the changes could be built into emerging systems.
Many of the 1,500 attendees here— up from a few hundred in recent years — agreed the excitement is centered more in higher ed than lower levels. Global demand is surging. And college tuition dollars — including, in the United States, $200 billion annually in federal student financial aid — follow the students where they choose to enroll, making the market more competitive and open to innovation.
They also agreed on the surprising origins of this spring-like moment: the wintry depths of the financial crisis that struck five years ago.
"People started to say, 'How do we do more with the resources we have?'" said Jim Shelton, the U.S. Department of Education's top innovation guru. "Technology has almost always answered that question for other sectors."
Richard Demillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, put it another way: The Great Recession exposed structural flaws in higher education. The system simply cost too much and accomplished too little.
"Everything from cost to price to the mission of universities kind of went under the microscope," Demillo said. "Enter technology."
What does this wave of educational innovation entail? To be sure, it includes the MOOCs and all sorts of "adaptive learning" software that promises to teach and measure some things better and more cheaply than a human teacher. The idea is to free up teachers for what they do best, not replace them, advocates insist, though many are skeptical.
But in some ways, the innovation is broader than the technology itself, which many call cool but not yet revolutionary. It's what the technology is doing — breaking down higher education across two dimensions: time and distance.
Recent financial pressures and these new technologies are opening cracks in traditional, age-old structures of higher education. Terms like "credit hour" and even the definition of what it means to be a college are in flux.
Higher education is becoming "unbundled." Individual classes and degrees are losing their connections to single institutions, in much the same way iTunes has unbundled songs from whole albums, and the Internet is increasingly unbundling television shows and networks from bulky cable packages.