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Higher Education’s Free Agent Future

What happens when Professor Everybody teaches at the University of Everywhere? I’ve been grappling with this question for the last week after I heard talks at SXSWedu in Austin and then in Washington, DC about the coming free-agent, unbundled era of higher education.

At SXSWedu—the education offshoot of the popular music and film festival—Jeff Young, a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, explained how the so-called “sharing economy” might disrupt the higher education teaching model in the future. Just like Uber allows people to become taxi drivers using their own cars and Airbnb offers the chance for us to run our homes like hotels, a set of technology platforms, such as Udemy and MOOC.org, now gives anyone with knowledge a chance to get paid to teach courses online. Say hello to Professor Everybody, as Young dubbed it in his talk. (The talk is not online, but you can read about Young’s ideas in a piece he wrote recently for The Chronicle).

I was thinking about Professor Everybody a few days later when I moderated a panel in Washington, D.C. with Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. He’s author of a new book called the “End of College,” but it’s the subtitle that is the real thesis of the book: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. According to Carey, the University of Everywhere is a combination of options that includes some of the traditional residential campuses we have today, but also many more online-only options as well as new providers and organizations that don’t exist currently. At the University of Everywhere, the credential won’t necessarily need to be earned in a physical place at one distinct time like we have today with the bachelor’s degree.

Both ideas have risks and opportunities for traditional colleges and universities, of course. Among the opportunities for institutions is a chance to pick and choose from the best teachers who have specific expertise and have demonstrated their abilities to worldwide audiences online. Institutions could become platforms for talent, aggregating a stable of freelance professors or even licensed content. At the same time, the University of Everywhere allows colleges to form deeper academic alliances with other traditional institutions and the emerging group of new education providers. Such alliances could share courses, professors, and even departments, and provide an outlet for lifelong learning for alumni who want access to more just-in-time education to advance in their jobs or out of intellectual curiosity.

Such opportunities, of course, don’t come without risks. One of the criticisms of the bundled university is that it has plenty of cross-subsidies and disentangling those will lead to some important functions no longer having enough financial support to survive. Professor Everybody also diminishes the role full-time faculty members play on a campus from being mentors to being guardians of the curriculum. The University of Everywhere lessens the power of the residential campus and outside-the-classroom learning that we know is so critical to the education of young minds.

In other industries, from music to publishing, that have been disrupted in recent years, the distance between producer and consumer has been shortened, often eliminating the middleman, such as publishers and record stores. The question now is what is the role of the middleman in higher education, the university, in the future where Professor Everybody teaches at the University of Everywhere.

Jeffrey J. Selingo is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a contributor to The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the author of several books on higher education. Jeff also contributes to Ithaka S+R’s blog.

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