New Ivy-League: Nice idea, wrong model

The education press fizzed this week, having caught up with an end of 2011 TED talk from former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson in which he proclaimed a $25 million war chest and an ambitious two-year timetable to “transform higher education” by creating an elite global university online. Not the first, and certainly not the last, entrepreneur to look to upset the timidity of the conventional higher education landscape, one does wonder whether the Minerva project is really about changing lives and futures, or just about market-share, profit, and disruptive enterprise. Is it really about something brand-new, or just new-brand? The obsession with being new ‘ivy-league’ belies some mis-placed assumptions.

In 1996 John Daniel, then Vice-Chancellor at the Open University UK, and later head of the Commonwealth of Learning, wrote ‘Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education’. Daniel writing in 1996 says “One new university per week is required to keep pace with world population growth but the resources necessary are not available…Popular perceptions of university quality are a barrier to change that can be surmounted. The appropriate use of technology adds quality in other areas of endeavour and can help universities overcome the criticism levelled at them.” I wonder if Ben Nelson has read it. I suspect not.

The power of the internet to transform education is not in doubt. We misjudged the impact of slate, paper, bought ink, ball-points and calculators, I don’t think there are many left who doubt the impact of the internet on higher education. We’ve seen exciting developments in OER and MOOC’s in recent years, and innovation with accreditation through OERu and MITx. Clearly the model is changing. And it’s been changing a while, but what the world needs is scale not 20th century notions of ‘quality’.

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