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The Future of Education: Amazon or an eBay Model?

Tanya Gupta's picture

In a Washington Post article that Dr. Qasem and I wrote entitled “The Arab Spring of Higher Education,” we spoke of the Amazon model and the eBay model of higher education. Here we elaborate on these two models and talk about what education will look like in the future.

First, let’s look at some US trends in higher education:

  1. Tuition costs are becoming increasingly unaffordable for college students.  President Obama in his Michigan address asked colleges to think of ways to make education cheaper and more accessible.  Large capital investments and fixed costs make it difficult for colleges to cut their expenses drastically
  2. College degrees are unaffordable for many and even so, do not guarantee a job.  There is a demand for many prospective students is to learn materials and skills that would help them get a job
  3. Free availability of multimedia tools, broadband access, differentiated student base, demand for flexibility and modularized education, and technologically empowered end-users has created an environment where a demand for 24/7 education can be fulfilled by individuals or groups of individuals

Technology is the common thread running through the above.  Technology can help cuts costs, and improve the quality of education.  Technology can also allow tailoring and customization of courses so that offerings can vary from a traditional college education to a skills based certification type course.

Given the above, we argued that the result will be the death of universities as we know them.  So what will the educational system of the future look like ?  We propose a few models:

The Amazon model of higher education:  Amazon has an interesting business model, characterized by the following:

  1. Huge variety of products: users can find virtually any product on the website
  2. A recommendation system based on a predictive model: consumers  can easily find products they like
  3. A “live” list of the most popular products in thousands of categories
  4. A rating system that allows sellers to be rated by users on a variety of different metrics.  Reviews by different users for most products accompanied by videos and other media as needed
  5. A premium package (Amazon Prime) for users who are willing to pay a bit extra
  6. A discussion space, as well as user support that is based on instant phone call back or an email, both with short turn around times

We think it is quite possible that the model of higher education will be like Amazon

  1. One company, perhaps the first in the market, will gain the advantage of scale and attract providers of education to their platform.  They will offer a wide variety of course materials taken from free sources such as Open Courseware by MIT, as well as paid courses.  Ultimately this platform will offer hundreds of courses on different subjects.
  2. A recommendation system or an automated “program builder” will provide you with a list of courses, once you inform the system of your desired outcomes
  3. A rating scheme will allow students to rate providers.  This will be supplemented by reviews.  This will possibly replace an official accreditation system
  4. The most popular courses will be seen in the “Top 100” lists
  5. A discussion space will grow in an organic fashion around popular subjects
  6. Premium packages will be available for users who are willing to pay for it

We think that this is at least one possible model of higher education in the future.  We also think it is possible that instead of fixed prices, auction markets may determine the price of courses and programs.  We call this the “eBay Model of Higher Education”.  This mode will have a lot in common with the Amazon model described above.  At this point, however it is difficult to say which one will win out.

So in many ways, we think the current trends portend the death of the university, as we know it.  We will only know what it will look like once the tectonic layers of technology and student demand stop shifting.  All the same 20 years from now, when we look at higher education, we believe that we will be looking as a vastly changed, almost alien landscape.  All we can do now is prepare for it by being as flexible as we can, both financially and intellectually, and keeping track of technology trends in education.


Picture credit: flickr user Dekuwa

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Submitted by Anonymous on
Very insightful, and I agree with most of the premises. The only one that stands out is the accreditation/social validation angle. IIT or Harvard graduate has a validation angle to employers, which will not go away for top instituitions.

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