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The Second Internet Wave Comes to Higher Education

Scottsdale, Ariz. — Steve Case is one of the few technology leaders who has lived through two Internet revolutions. The founder of AOL made an appearance this week at the Education Innovation Summit, the upstart gathering that in its fourth year attracted some 1,400 entrepreneurs, financiers, and educators to the Arizona desert.

Most entrepreneurs from the 100-plus companies that pitched their ideas at the conference were too young to recall the ubiquitous shrink-wrapped CDs that helped AOL grow during the 1990s, but Case’s advice on change and innovation still found an audience among many of the twentysomethings in the room. Case’s core message perhaps carried even more significance for college leaders who are struggling with an unsustainable business model but who remained largely absent from this meeting.

To Case, the first Internet wave, which ended with the tech crash of 2001, was about building the infrastructure of the Web. The second wave, which we’re living through now, is focused on trying to improve the quality of life.

Of great interest to technology companies right now, Case said, is improving education. Here are my three takeaways for college leaders from what the former AOL leader said:

Focus less on invention, more on improvement. The companies that pitched their ideas here didn’t offer breakthrough products that made you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Most of them improved on something someone else had already developed, confirming Case’s theory of the second Internet wave.

The conversation in the hallways and in several sessions during the summit was whether there is really anything left to invent in order to improve education. Sure there is, but much of the focus in the discussions here was about using the vast amounts of data we already collect on students to validate different teaching methods (such as online or hybrid) and design paths to a degree that personalize education in a way that ensures more students succeed (such as adaptive learning and competency-based degrees).

Don’t go it alone. Harnessing the power of big data is both mind-boggling and expensive for most colleges. Case talked about how technology companies often team up with others or license their products to share ideas and risk. But within higher ed, colleges are inherently competitive with one another and rarely like to cooperate, particularly on the academic side. But in order to improve how and what students learn in the future—and, in some cases, to survive—colleges must share resources like never before.

One model to emulate is the loose federations that Coursera and edX have created to develop MOOCs. Many institutions that are part of those two efforts to build massive open online courses still compete on every other front for students, faculty members, and money.

Build platforms for talent. All the smart people don’t work at your company, Case told the audience. The best companies, he said, are those that recognize talent comes in many shapes and sizes, and that make a home for all of those people, even if they aren’t employed by the company. With professors now reaching students directly through MOOCs or even their own universities, colleges are going to increasingly need to deal with professors who are free agents and have developed their own following. We’re already seeing this in the journalism and music industries, where newspapers and record labels are a lot less important to the success of writers and performers than they were in the past.

As future students move around the higher-ed system, gathering experiences and credits from multiple universities and other providers, they’ll pay less attention to brand names (except for the elite names). Colleges should worry less about who a professor works for and more about becoming the gathering place and platform for the best teachers.

Case thinks the education sector is only in the bottom of the first inning of a nine-inning game when it comes to the changes it will undergo. That’s probably little comfort to colleges that hope all this talk of change and innovation will just go away and we’ll return to the old days, when they owned the market and had almost unlimited pricing power.

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