The AltDegree Manifesto
1. The philosophical argument / availability of information
The invention of writing allowed people to preserve their knowledge for future generations, preventing the latest one from having to start from scratch. The invention of the printing press eased the distribution of knowledge. The internet definitively democratized knowledge by making the world’s information is now available to everyone.
Education consists of the organization and instruction of the already available information.
However, while information has become completely accessible, education remains restricted to a few. This is due to the adoption of a model that was never designed to scale. The original methodology for education involved a single mentor and an apprentice (think of greek philosophers), the current model for education is just an extrapolation of that. The number of students must be limited to the size of the school, to the capacity of the classroom, and to the number of professors.
The online education model overcomes these limitations. A class becomes a digital product that can be duplicated and distributed to additional students with barely any incremental cost per unit. Is online education as good as face-to-face instruction? Over 70% of academic leaders consider online learning outcomes the same or superior to face-to-face. Nevertheless, only 29% of chief academic officers believe online education is legitimate or valuable. 1
This leads us to believe that academia is less willing to adopt online education than it is to preserve the status quo.
2. The cost argument
The cost of college has been increasing non-stop over time, to the point that it has driven student debt to be the second largest source of household debt at $1.23 trillion, surpassed only by home mortgages.2
The number of students graduating from college in 2015 who had to take loans to finance their education doubled in the last 20 years to 71%. But not only have more people had to appeal to debt to afford higher education, the amounts they owe have also risen. The value of the debt per student doubled in the same 20 year period.3
Yet, this is not the whole extent of the story. If we take the case of grad school specifically, professionals usually have to step away from their income for 1-2 years. At an average salary of $60,000 before grad school and an average tuition cost of $40,000, the actual cost of attending grad school can reach up to $160,000. If we consider an increase in income of $22,000 right after acquiring a masters degree4, it could take the student over 7 years to break even from this “investment” and start enjoying its profits.
It seems that if we want to educate the next generation and allow them to progress, the model is doing the exact opposite as it should be doing.
Online education is the 100X better solution to the rising cost of higher education.
It leverages the scalability of software models to reach thousands and millions of students with a relatively static cost. While traditional schools prefer to stick to a local and ridiculously high-margin business model, online education has the possibility to go for a lower margin and high volume model that is a win for both the student and the business. To paint a picture of the difference: the average selling price for a Udemy course is $25, while a 3-credit class in grad school may cost up to $5,000.
Moreover, the online education model is also beneficial to the instructor, whose income becomes a variable of the number of students enrolled in the course, which can reach hundreds or thousands at a time.
3. The time argument
When it comes to time dedication, there are several options for aspiring students. Some may decide to attend full-time classes, while others might prefer part-time degrees that allow them to keep their jobs. Unfortunately, both options are subject to the limitations of the learning model.
A full-time student is forced to meet an established schedule, learn at a fixed pace that might be too fast or too slow, take breaks when the class calendar indicates it, and ultimately spend a defined amount of time tied to the school in order to obtain a degree. There is absolutely no flexibility for the student here. He/she is spending a considerable amount of capital in an institution that treats each individual as an average of the many.
The same applies to part-time degrees, with the additional caveat that these degrees usually take longer to finish.
This lack of flexibility adds a layer of difficulty to education that has nothing to do with learning and adds absolutely no value to the student. The existing model simply can’t accommodate the students’ needs if they get sick, if they want to learn faster, or if their job suddenly becomes more demanding than expected.
We believe that education should adapt to the student and not the other way around.
Online education provides this benefit. A highly-motivated student may decide to take as many online classes as his/her schedule allows and finish a full-degree worth of courses in a fraction of the time. Another student has the possibility of taking these classes during nights when he/she is not completely exhausted from full day of work.
Professors, on the other hand, is free from the constant repetition of lectures - instead, the instructor is there to address outstanding needs, mentor, and coach students.
4. The quality argument
The face-to-face instruction model is subject to a very obvious limitation when it comes to providing high quality education: limited availability of instructors per subject. Often times the competition for a teaching position is limited to a small region, making the outcome of the selection process a local maximum at best (if the best instructor doesn’t decide to go to a different school.) Ivy league schools are probably the only exception to this issue, since they are capable of attracting nation-wide talent.
Moreover, instructors in most colleges and grad schools are often times underpaid which may negatively influence their motivation to teach, hence the quality of the education they provide.
Considering this constraint, a school that claims to provide “high quality education in X” is actually providing, at best, classes that are above a standard of quality only when looked as a curriculum. If you take a deeper look into what this means and analyze each individual class, you will find a typical normal distribution: a minority of truly outstanding instructors, a large group of average quality instructors, and a small group of really bad ones.
A good model for education should not impose bad instructors on students for lack of a better option. Instead, it should make competition for a teaching position broader, making the best instructors available to more students, motivating the average instructors to improve, and weaving out the terrible ones.
Online education is not subject to this either. There are thousands of online instructors and they are accessible anywhere in the world. A student who wants to become learn marketing analytics can learn the basics of data science from an expert instructor from John Hopkins University through Coursera, and then learn advanced Google Analytics from an experienced practitioner through Lynda.
Moreover, online education not only democratizes learning, but also makes teaching available to thousands of highly-capable professionals who are willing to either monetize their knowledge and expertise or share it for free, but who are unable to adapt to a traditional school method of teaching. This only increases the size and quality of the available pool of instructors.
5. The accessibility argument
The application process to college and grad school makes aspiring students jump through a number of hoops in order to qualify for a spot in an institution. The list of requirements includes several forms, resume, financial statements, test scores, previous diplomas, essays, interviews, etc.
Even after all of this, the candidate might be put on a waitlist or even denied of the possibility to attend his/her school of choice. This has caused the number of schools that the average candidate applies to to rise, over a period of 15 years, from 1-3 to as many as 10.5
Most schools will argue that admissions are used to get the best candidates for the school and ensure a high-level learning environment. This is probably true for the best schools in the country, where demand for a spot far exceeds the supply.
However, it unlikely this remains to be true for the majority of schools, which go to great extents to attempt to forecast the number of students who will end up enrolling in a class - where a wrong estimation might cause budget cuts, layoffs, and even closing entire departments. This situation has lead most schools to treat placement more similarly to how a company treats a sales quota.5
We believe schools have an interest in maintaining the current model for education since it allows them to leverage a false sense of scarcity and exclusivity to maximize revenue. There shouldn’t be competition to access knowledge but to achieve a level of validation - the degree. In the end, the net result of providing education to more people will be to have a bigger pool of talent for jobs and, as a consequence of this, more high-quality talent.
Online education, on the other hand, is available to everyone. If someone wants to learn a skill, obtaining access to the appropriate education is as easy as typing an email address and paying with a credit card. The only variable that will determine whether or not the student actually learns is his/her own motivation to do so.
6. The highly-skilled labor argument
It is common knowledge that acquiring higher educational degrees usually translates to higher income. Education has been long recognized as a critical factor for social mobility. However, when it comes to post-graduate-level education, it is not as straightforward that this is the best way to go.
After undergrad, the increase in earnings is higher between professionals with at least 3 years of experience vs those with no experience, than professionals with or without a master's degree. In simpler terms, experience trumps education when it comes to boosting income.4
The future model for education should be able to provide the benefits of work experience with academic instruction in order to maximize its impact on the student’s earnings.
But analyzing the earnings gap as a result of higher education only covers a small portion of the issue. The job market is about to be disrupted by software.
As a result of the industrial revolution, many workers ended up being unemployed or underemployed because they couldn’t compete with the machines that took over their jobs in terms of efficiency, quality, and cost. Automation and artificial intelligence will be the service industry's revolution. Millions of jobs will soon become irrelevant as humans are substituted by highly sophisticated algorithms.
It sounds futuristic, but has already started to happen.
In the near future, acquiring advanced skills will not only signify higher income but job security against the progress of automation and AI taking over jobs that require basic skills. With this in mind, making higher education accessible becomes imperative to counteract the effect of “software eating the world.”
Because of all the arguments described before, we believe online education is the best option to provide a large portion of the population with highly-relevant skills for the job market: it is scalable, available, accessible, and cost-effective. Moreover, due to its software-like nature, online course offerings can respond faster to the demand for a certain topic or subject from the students, which in turn respond to the demand of skills coming from the industry.
Why start with Digital Marketing?
For a discipline that is inherently practiced online, whose top representatives are not lifelong academic researchers, but self-taught practitioners who learned in non-traditional ways, it's absurd to want to take the formation of new professionals outside of its natural and constantly-changing ecosystem into a more traditional and rigid model.