A brief history of the impending transformation of post-secondary education, just to clarify where we are, followed by some commentary. Dates are approximate as I’m working from memory on an airplane. Perhaps later I’ll turn this into a proper piece of writing with supporting links, etc., if folks find it interesting.

7x – The internet. Data can be routed from computer to computer. The cost of copying and distributing content begins its drop toward zero.

8x – Free software. The data that can be routed from computer to computer, including software source code, can be licensed in a way that guarantees users are free to tinker with and redistribute it.

9x – The web. The link is born (apologies to Nelson), and documents can be connected to one another.

9x – Courses go online. Syllabi and readings appear on faculty personal pages. Homework submission over email. The LMS will soon follow.

98 – Open source. Free software moves from the philosophical (software “should” be free) to the pragmatic (“things work better when source code is liberally licensed”). Several non-FSF approaches to sharing are brought under a common umbrella (Apache, BSD, etc.).

98 – Open content. Open licensing moves beyond software to all copyrightable works – photos, music, videos, and writings – including all forms of educational content. While the cost of copying and redistributing syllabi, readings, etc. has been approaching zero since the inception of the internet, there is now a legal way to leverage this technical capability.

0x – Blogs and wikis. Blogs democratize online publishing – anyone who can get to an internet-connected computer has a worldwide audience at no cost. Wikis drastically decrease the complexities involved in collaborative writing.

01 – Creative Commons – The rickety open content licenses are replaced by solid legal documents with better branding and a more capable, charismatic leader. The fledgling open content movement takes off.

02 – MIT OCW – MIT commits to publish much of the materials used in its classroom instruction as open content using a Creative Commons license.

04 – Open teaching (aka Wiley wiki model). Distribution of syllabi and readings via an open wiki, which the world (including students) can read and edit. Assignment submission by public blog posting, which the world (including other students) can read and comment on. Interaction and discussion between on-campus / registered students, off-campus / unregistered students, and faculty on public blogs and on the wiki.

07 – Unofficial Certificates. Open call for participation by the public in a university class operating on an open teaching model. Unofficial, non-credit-bearing certificates without the university brand are awarded to unregistered participants who complete course requirements. Formal students at other universities register for independent study credits at their home institution, and with the help of a cooperating faculty member convert their certificate into local credits they can apply toward graduation.

08 – MOOC – Open teaching scaled to thousands of students, with much greater flexibility given to learners.

10 – Badges – A standard approach / technology is proposed for credentialing informal learning achievements (like those earned by unregistered participants in an open teaching scenario). The validity of badges can be verified by third parties. (Note: nothing prevents badges from being awarded for formal learning experiences.)

11 – Stanford AI Class – Open teaching hits the public eye with 100,000 informal participants in an AI class offered by faculty at Stanford. Additional courses from Stanford are offered.

11 – MIT MITx – MIT announces that in 2012 it will launch an open teaching initiative under the MITx brand (TEDx, anyone?), but will charge an “affordable” fee for the end-of-course credential. The media goes crazy for this “revolutionary, no-admission-requirement approach,” apparently unaware of the dozens of open universities throughout the world. MITx announces it will open source the MITx platform, apparently unaware that competitors will use its open content and its open platform to initiate a race-to-the-bottom price war for its alternative credentials. (And no, the NC clause will not help them here.)

So here we find ourselves on the brink of 2012. Add (1) the current state of affairs described above with (2) the “Or Equivalent” language on every employer’s job description I have written about previously, and you get (3) imminent revolution in post-secondary education. Let me spell it out in case you’re having trouble putting the pieces together.

Say I’m Google, and I need to hire an engineer. My job ad requirement says “BS in Computer Science or equivalent.” I get two applicants. The first has a BS in Computer Science from XYZ State College. The second has certificates of successful completion for open courses in data structures and algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning from Stanford and MITx. Do you think I’ll seriously consider candidate two? You bet I will.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the tyranny of the degree. When big name employers accept another credential in place of a Bachelors, the jig is up for higher ed.

And it will absolutely happen during 2012. Before the year ends we’ll read stories of people who don’t have a degree landing very respectable jobs partially on the strength of these a la carte, informal credentials earned in an open teaching model. Now, this is not another typical “any day now something really cool is going to happen” empty ed tech prediction. This is an absolute, guaranteed certainty. The seed is in the ground, the sun will keep shining, the rain will keep falling, and there will absolutely be a harvest by year end. (I can’t help but point out here that back in 2009 I predicted that MIT would create a for-pay, online offering around its open content by 2012).

What are the potential impacts on the higher ed sector over the next five to seven years? A few modest ones come immediately to mind:

– As soon as employers start publicly accepting these alternative credentials, there will be a market for additional providers. A market means entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs mean innovation. Some of the innovation will benefit students in new, unimagined ways. Some of the “innovation” will find new ways to pillage and plunder from students while providing almost no benefit.

– Employment possibilities based on individual course credentials rather than entire degrees means a decline in traditional university enrollments. Why go into four years’ worth of student loan debt when I can get the eight courses I need for a job in 18 months? People in and out of the university system in 18 months instead of 48 means an instant doubling of higher education capacity in the US. Obama may hit his post-secondary goal for 2020 after all.

– The new employment value of “a la carte aggregation” means a significant decline in general education enrollments. When universities can’t bully students into taking gen ed courses by threatening to withhold their degrees, what will they do? General education will have to be sold to students on its merits rather than placed as roadblocks on the way to the courses they really want. Don’t get me wrong – this is not a screed against general education – I believe there’s significant value in general education. But universities are going to have to sell it to each and every student, individually.

– The drop in general education enrollments will destroy what’s left of the traditional higher ed textbook market, which subsists on volume sales of ridiculously over-priced books into high enrolling gen ed courses. (That is, the drop in enrollments will destroy the market if increasing pressure from openly licensed alternatives hasn’t already done it).

– The drop in general education enrollments will also impact the size of the job market for adjunct faculty.

– These declines in overall enrollments generally and in general education courses specifically will impact higher education’s funding model. However, if the decline in students from the population higher ed currently serves can be made up with new students from previously unserved populations, many people could benefit and funding could remain moderately stable. The transition in marketing, student acquisition, and appropriately serving this new group will not be straightforward.

– And while it goes without saying, a few universities will respond to the new climate by innovating internally (e.g., Stanford and MITx). Most will try to pretend that nothing of importance is actually happening, and that because they are “special” the new rules wouldn’t apply to them even if something was happening. A few won’t realize what is happening until it’s too late and will be caught completely off guard.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this analysis is the degree to which the fate of higher education will be dictated by the whims of industry. If higher education could somehow convince employers to boycott alternative credentials, none of the above would happen. However, because employers want more fine-grained information about candidates (what does a degree in “marketing” mean, anyway?) and students want to spend less time and money on school, this transformation (or one very similar to it) is inevitable.

Golly but it’s an exciting time to be alive!