I’m increasingly convinced that the “disruption” of higher education is happening before our very eyes, but the shift is not technology-led, and is not a spectical. It is not a MOOC, a tablet, or a “flipped classroom”. Instead, it is the slow rejection of an increasingly unrealistic financial structure presented by large, administrative-heavy universities and the equally slow adoption of small specialist programs that focus on skills and career placement. I suppose you could call this the revolution of vocational programs: the renewed interest in education as a mechanism to secure a trade and gain employment.

Here are a few examples of this type of program:

  • AC4D, a program I run in Austin that teaches Social Entrepreneurship and Interaction Design.
  • General Assembly, a funded program in various cities in the US that teaches creative skills in design, marketing, and programming.
  • The Delta Program, a program that teaches Android development in Austin
  • Hack Reactor, an “elite software career accelerator”
  • Dev Bootcamp, teaching web development in 9 weeks

These programs are different, but share a few common qualities:

  1. They are short. Typically, these programs are 8 weeks, 3 months, or half a year long; it’s rare to see a multi-year program of this type.
  2. They focus on skill acquisition. Students who enter the program have a clear understanding of what they’ll learn, as the programs all emphasize specific methods, languages, techniques, and capabilities.
  3. They produce a portfolio as evidence of mastery. Students who graduate from these programs have a body of work that they can point to and say “I made those things.” This makes it very easy to understand and judge the quality of the student, particularly from the standpoint of a recruiter or hiring manager.
  4. They are taught by practitioners. These educators have a deep and intimate understanding of both the material that is being taught and the relevancy of that material to a job: they typically don’t teach material “just because it’s always been taught”, which may position these programs for appropriate critique from educators focused on teaching theory or more traditional pedagogy.
  5. They promote employment and career repositioning, rather than emphasizing the benefits of learning as an end in itself. This is often at odds with a more liberal progressive view that hopes for intrinsic motivation in learning; this focus on career viability is sometimes critiqued as being “watered down” or “selling out.”
  6. They typically focus on the “Richard Florida” type jobs and careers: the creative disciplines of software engineering, product design, advertising, marketing, and so-on.

This last point is the most interesting to me. I think these programs in creative professions are indicators of a larger sea-change to come, as these programs are all in trades that are largely unregulated. There’s no state licensure in software development, interaction design, or marketing (although one could certainly make an argument that these professions are just as dangerous as, say, a doctor, and should be regulated), and so creating a small program in one of these fields is fairly simple. A director will have to comply with broad state legislation related to career and trade schools, but there are few hoops to jump through related to the actual subject matter (and equally few external checks on the actual competency of grads from these programs).

In the future, we’ll start to see a shift towards these small, skill-based programs in more regulated service industries like healthcare and pharmacy, and I think we’ll see a legislative reaction similar to what’s happening with AirBNB and Uber. State and municipal governments will struggle with how to handle new forms of education that combine online and offline learning but that don’t look or feel like universities or colleges. General Assembly recently raised 35M, and you can bet their investors will take on any legislative hurdles with the same enthusiasm as Uber’s investors.

I’m excited to imagine tools that support educators in developing new and unique (and smaller, more specialized) programs like this. Google’s new light-weight education platform is aimed at K-12, but their capability set could certainly be applied in the context of a small certificate program. Since many of the instructors in these programs lack formal educational training, they could benefit from syllabus creation tools, remote collaboration tools, and basic training in how to teach. These educators likely share the qualities of adjunct professors, and would benefit from the same support structures, tools, and designs I’ve previously described.

The phrase “disruption” is misleading, mostly because a disruptive act is obvious and loud. The educational changes that are loudest and most prominent seem to be those related to technological advancement, but the biggest shifts seem to be in size and shape of the educational service offering itself. I see the “disruption” of higher education being driven more by a rejection of low quality academics, higher tuition costs, and a lack of perceived return on investment. The form of this disruption are small specialist programs that operate outside of traditional academic formats and without administrative overhead.

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