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 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


The University’s Dilemma

Another model tied to the traditional higher education players, Coursera, was founded in 2011 by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller with funding from venture capitalists John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Scott Sandell of New Enterprise Associates. Positioned as social entrepreneurship, Coursera grabs headlines by building tools to broadcast existing content through free video lectures in partnerships with top-ranked universities such as Princeton and the University of Virginia. Intent on efficiently managing massive course enrollment, the company seeks to develop new tools, such as software that prioritizes student questions for interactive sessions with thousands of participants and for organizing peer-reviewed grading. Research in primary education has shown that blind grading, peer grading, and self-grading correlate strongly with teacher assessments, and can enhance learning. (Disclosure: The Darden School of Business, where I am on the faculty, is offering its own Coursera Massive Open Online Course, called “Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses,” beginning January 28, 2013, as part of a University of Virginia initiative. I am not directly involved in this course. As of September 2012, more than 23,000 people had registered for it.)

Farther afield, the software company TopCoder Inc. is challenging the fundamental need for an advanced degree by explicitly measuring ability, not pedigree. When Jack Hughes founded it in 2000, the company set out to tackle the business challenge of recruiting and assessing programming talent. Rather than relying on education credentials, TopCoder runs coding competitions to identify top talent on the basis of demonstrated proficiency. These Web-based challenges are often sponsored by technology leaders, such as Google and Sun Microsystems, and attract participants from around the world; the site maintains more than 400,000 individual profiles. The ratings inform companies seeking to crowdsource software components in a reverse auction or hold “bug races” to eliminate errors in programs. The TopCoder model offers a new spin on certification and fulfills workers’ growing desire for flexible working arrangements rather than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. cubicle-based jobs.

Although not an obvious place to find innovative business models, evangelical megachurches offer lessons on scaling up technology while maintaining an immersive experience. For example, North Point Ministries in Atlanta serves an average of 30,000 congregants each week through a network of five campuses, and its collection of podcasts, newsletters, and streaming videos are accessed a million times per month. Each facility seats from 1,000 to 5,000 attendees; the church employs theater-style screens broadcasting from high-definition cameras originally designed for NASA. The multi-campus network supports this immersive experience through three levels of engagement using a house as the metaphor: The “foyer” hosts Sunday morning sermons (with production values worthy of a premium rock concert); the “living room” holds smaller, more active periodic events; and the “kitchen” is the place for weekly study groups of eight to 12 people led by lay members of the church. Those who remember how the televangelists of the 1970s and ’80s leveraged cable television will recognize the need to watch this model closely.

Online gaming offers another technology model worth exploring. Massive multiplayer role-playing games — such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft — create a world in which participants can collaborate to tackle complex challenges. The original Warcraft game, first released in 1994, has spawned three additional releases; the latest version supports more than 9 million subscribers. More than 200 servers around the world host “realms” with up to 1,500 simultaneous users controlling avatars who individually or collectively pursue quests and battle for dominance against competing factions. The game was not designed for educational purposes, but some believe it could play more of a university-like role. The popular science fiction novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011) portrays an energy-drained future world in which most of the population spends time plugged into “OASIS,” a massive multiplayer environment accessed with goggles and gloves by the poor — or fully immersive clothing and equipment by the wealthy. In this dystopia, set in 2044, the masses attend virtual schools that were built by simply replicating software code and recruiting teachers to connect and lecture remotely — using technology that mostly already exists.

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