Is Higher Education Evolving?

Key Takeaways

  • To survive and thrive, living organisms, industries, and institutions — including higher education — must evolve or adapt to changing environments.
  • The slow evolutionary clock speed and failure to adopt contextualized open interfaces in the higher education ecosystem may threaten its continued survival in the face of new environmental pressures.
  • More effective and efficient knowledge creation and distribution can increase the evolutionary clock speed and fuel successful evolutionary changes.
  • The higher education ecosystem has produced some projects demonstrating an evolutionary shift in approach that could fuel further successful evolution.

In 1859, Charles Darwin proposed in The Origin of Species that living organisms adapt and evolve through natural selection (survival of the fittest). In the same vein, Charles Fine claimed that when industries face new challenges or environmental pressure, they must evolve or adapt in order to avoid extinction.1 In addition, scholars such as Takahiro Fujimoto2 viewed competency-building competition as part of industry’s evolutionary process, while Ki-Chan Kim and Hi Sook Kim3 viewed “feed forwarding” as an important survival and growth instinct in industry evolution. Although some in higher education might consider such ideas nonsensical when applied to colleges and universities, we can adapt some of these views in trying to make sense of today’s higher education ecosystem.

A New Species

First, many people would argue that there is no such thing as a higher education “industry” or that the term is not appropriate in referring to the noble business of educating students. However, what of the for-profit higher education service providers such as the University of Phoenix, Argosy University, Corinthian Colleges, and Strayer University? Members of this new species have introduced interesting learning models into the higher education ecosystem. They also receive an increasingly significant amount of Title IV federal funding while attracting older and working people who would not or could not otherwise become students in traditional higher education institutions.

Along with the century-long debates on the chief aim of education (for social efficiency in the technocratic schooling system, or to promote world peace, social empowerment, or shared global prosperity4), higher education systems have focused on being knowledge creation labs and knowledge distribution centers. Many traditional systems have tried to be good at both missions. Those organizations that did not do well with either mission failed to evolve and became extinct or evolved into a different species (for example, Grand Canyon University evolved from a Christian nonprofit to a for-profit university, and its once small online program has mutated into one of a conglomerate of online education services). Considering the market share of the new for-profit species, clearly they are growing in number, yet their influence on the higher education ecosystem is still considered miniscule — at least for now — regardless of their profit margins, unique learning models, and growth rates.

Global Open Interfaces

When Charles Fine used his “double helix model” to explain the evolution of industries, he claimed that companies move between proprietary integrative and open-standard modular approaches to compete and evolve with a highly idiosyncratic “clock speed.” With his model, he examined how IBM tried to disintegrate its proprietary personal computer model and modularize it with Microsoft’s operating system and Intel’s CPU, whereas Apple tried to maintain its proprietary product design approach by integrating its own operating system and hardware. As a result, IBM-compatible computers quickly dominated the market. More recently, Apple has introduced a series of interesting computing and communication devices coupled with a content supply model, while Google’s open-source Android operating system for mobile computing devices is creating new — evolutionary? — dynamics in the computer industry.

The higher education ecosystem doesn’t have much of a plug-and-play concept involving a global open interface in operations or teaching and learning. For example, most home-grown systems (student admissions, faculty search and appointments, course scheduling, academic records, portfolios, etc.) are highly proprietary unless reluctantly shared (for example, universities can’t even agree upon student transcript formats!). At best, some teaching-focused universities might share open curriculum repositories within a university system, some professors might download and take their common digital assets when moving to another university, and students might be able to use the same learning software packages in more than one university. There just isn’t much in the way of noticeable, systematic, open interface approaches in higher education. Interestingly, some school districts in the K–12 sector are outsourcing math and science teaching jobs (leveraging synchronous and asynchronous web conferencing systems) to India to lower costs and provide 24 × 7 access to one-on-one, high-quality online tutoring. Some districts offer third-party online programs as supplementary interventions or even as charter school options for within-district students. Despite a huge number of applicants (that is, growing digital youth), some districts had to limit enrollment to their virtual charter schools because they couldn’t accommodate them all. In most higher education systems, however, I have not observed substantial efforts to seek higher efficiency by decoupling functions, unbundling roles, or creating exchangeable modules.

In addition, I haven’t seen any substantial signs of evolution involving the global open interface concept in the higher education ecosystem. For example, highly motivated students in Butare, Rwanda, still cannot plug and play Harvard University Business Administration courses, Stanford University’s Organic Chemistry course, or Oxford University’s Psychology course using the National University of Rwanda’s classroom player. How open is it when the most needy and underprivileged people cannot access so-called “open resources”? Unfortunately, there is no shared understanding of contextualized open resources, and there are very few signs of evolution in this arena. Certainly higher education labs or centers today show little interest in making open access a goal.

Environmental Pressures

Nonetheless, the higher education ecosystem has been evolving — with an extremely slow clock (slower than clocks for industries such as electronics or mobile communication, which evolve at a lightning-fast clock speed). Newer concepts such as online education, blended learning, open educational resources, iTunes University, MIT OpenCourseWare, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, Thomson Reuters Scholar One, learning management systems, or e-portfolios have begun influencing certain functions in higher education, however. For example, while professors lecture with PowerPoint slides and simulations, students often take photos with their mobile phones instead of writing notes and send their digital collections to a cloud computing storage system called “Gmail” for later retrieval or “Google Docs” to collaborate with peers. If something doesn’t make sense during lectures, students often search using Google or Wikimedia to get more information — if not “Twitcaming” to ask someone to comment while the professor is talking. Many professors and students use web and mobile blogs to reflect and express ideas. Accordingly, perhaps digital literacy should no longer deal with word-processing or e-mailing proficiencies, but with competencies in rapid information searching and validating or in media organizing and presenting.

Does the advent of these newer capabilities mean higher education is under some environmental pressure and that maybe evolution is taking place? Probably, but again at a very slow clock speed — many higher education institutions still dictate how long students must take to learn certain subjects, when they need to show up and leave, and in what sequence students must digest knowledge. Most traditional of all, the place called a “classroom” is still mostly considered where “learning” takes place. In the midst of such rigidity in higher education, college students with traditional degrees graduate into an economy of rapidly emerging, previously unseen jobs and must make do with an education that did not prepare them for this new environment.

Fuel for Evolution?

If higher education is to evolve, what might fuel such an evolution — and make the pendulum swing faster between proprietary integration and open modulation to accelerate the clock speed for more effective and efficient knowledge creation and distribution? One project is worth mentioning because it aims to open up a new world of computation, networking, and access that might help the education ecosystem evolve at a faster clock speed. Stanford University recently embarked on a highly multidisciplinary project named Programmable Open Mobile Internet (POMI) as part of the university’s Clean Slate interdisciplinary research program. POMI has several research objectives, such as:

  • Creating wireless mobile bandwidth exceeding gigabits per second
  • Making network switches and routers programmable with open flow standards
  • Equalizing and innovating educational access with a “Pocketschool” open mobile learning model
  • Creating semantic web-based private and public information storage (PRPL)in the cloud
  • Transforming HR technologies with mobile phone–integrated e-portfolio systems5
  • Innovating social mobile interaction possibilities with decentralized ad hoc communication platforms

POMI’s openness and innovative features may enable educational computing resources or virtual universities to roam in the cloud to get closer to where actual learning is taking place, while learners’ physical presence might not truly matter. Perhaps in the near future, children in Uganda’s refugee camps and learners of all ages in Gaza can participate in the 21st century version of learning activities, while adolescents in remote rural villages of India and students in Palo Alto, California, can collaborate on projects such as renewable energy generation. One day, the United Nations might adopt the policy that connectivity is a human right.

In terms of sustaining and funding Pocketschool models in underserved regions, the “1001 Stories”6 sub-project promotes a micro creative content economy by harnessing mobile technology to empower students in rural villages to participate in the global content economy (through Amazon Kindle e-books, iPhone apps, etc.) with their very own abundant natural resource: creativity. Projects such as energy-efficient mobile operating systems reduce the demand for power, and low-cost personal wind turbine designs provide electrical power for mobile learning devices.

Overall, POMI projects and relevant courses invite people to collaborate on developing sustainable innovation and empowerment technologies that can cause a global impact. Whether or not projects such POMI will fuel the future evolution of the higher education ecosystem is yet to be determined, but so far it looks quite promising.


Today’s higher education ecosystem teems with vibrant organizations, yet the signs of evolution seem less evident, and its clock speed seems to be extremely slow. Either no competition exists among species with dominant power (a shared intellectual monopoly, perhaps?), or environmental pressures have not reached a level sufficient to force evolution. Or — the worst possibility — people might be fine with the way teaching and learning take place today and have little interest in concepts such as open interfaces.

Nonetheless, emerging technology projects such as POMI seem to provide fuel for innovation. I hope more interdisciplinary projects will seek and promote equality and innovation to achieve shared global prosperity and peace through digital empowerment from the grass-roots level.

Tracing a possible evolutionary path seems an interesting and meaningful endeavor. Obviously, however, evolution is a reactive phenomenon. It would be more noble and timely if the higher education community became more proactive in redefining the chief aim of education while embracing new ideas, decoupling university functions, unbundling teacher roles, and perhaps creating some open exchange modules to seek sustainable higher efficiency for all. When such evolution takes place, maybe no one needs to be left out of a newly thriving higher education ecosystem.

  1. Charles H. Fine, Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage (New York: Perseus Books, 1998).
  2. Takahiro Fujimoto, “Architecture-based Competitive Advantage — A Design Information View of Manufacturing,” Evolutionary and Institutional Economics Review, vol. 4, no. 1 (2007), pp. 55–112, published by Japan Association for Evolutionary Economics, Tokyo.
  3. Ki-Chan Kim and Hi Sook Kim, “Comparative Study on the Evolution Vector of Business Architecture between Korea and Japan,” Small Business Research, vol. 27, no. 3 (September 2005).
  4. Michael Knoll, “From Kidd to Dewey: The Origin and Meaning of ‘Social Efficiency’,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, vol. 41, no. 3 (June 2009), pp. 361–391.
  5. Paul Kim, Chen Kee Ng, and Gloria Lim, “When Cloud Computing Meets with the Semantic Web: A New Design for E-Portfolio Systems in the Social Media Era,” British Journal of Educational Technology (March 2010).
  6. Paul Kim, Karmia Cao, and Ivan Lee, “Stories to Tell and 1001 More Days to Live: Exploring the Micro Creative Economy as a Means to Fund and Promote Literacy Development in Underserved Areas,” (2010), manuscript submitted for review.