As massively open online courses continue to gain traction, they're proving a disruptive force in higher education.
The traditional emphasis on in-person classes has brought universities to a price point that does not look sustainable, said Adrian Sannier, senior vice president of product for Pearson eCollege.
"Maybe for the first time in a really long time, higher ed is under a tremendous amount of external scrutiny," said Sannier, the former vice president and university technology officer at Arizona State University. "There is growing awareness that the prices charged and the rate at which the prices are growing is simply unsustainable."
With mounting student debt, consumers are looking for a lower cost education that they can access in a time and place that work with their hectic lives. And they expect to leave the university with a degree that prepares them for work.
But a general arts or science education is tough to transition into the work environment, said Stuart Bowness, co-founder and CEO of MediaCore.
"Generally speaking, educational institutions of today are not training students for the environments in which they're being placed with work," Bowness said. "And what's really beginning to disrupt this is these massively open online courses."
These courses allow working adults to learn new skills in small bites, equip them with skills they can use immediately and do not charge students. And when someone can take a course at no charge, Bowness said, it makes a traditional college education a tough sell.
"Where institutions are really being challenged is how they add value over and above what a student could learn from a massively open online course," he said.
Universities must grapple with the twin pressures of the existing model's cost and the limitations of its effectiveness, Sannier said. The core higher education model in the U.S. has been a sole proprietor course model where individual professors develop courses and deliver them on a small scale.
But these large online courses blow that scale out of the water by reaching hundreds of thousands of students each. And they show that courses can be produced differently than they have been previously.
"The MOOCs have opened up an avenue for continuous improvement that is exerting a lot of at least conceptural pressure on a lot of instututions," Sannier said.