The Higher Education Technology Debate

Large public schools have a unique goal: to broadly educate citizens in a variety of subjects, at an affordable cost. While some students pay full price for their education, higher education is typically subsidized through a variety of sources, including private funding, research grants, philanthropic fellowships, and -- of course -- taxes. As would be expected, then, the landscape of higher education becomes a political battleground, with multiple opinions and values creating complexity and undue bureaucracy. Across the nation, higher education has become the main stage for an ideological conversation concerning the cost of a degree, the amount of time students should and do take to graduate, and their social contribution, in terms of employment, upon graduation.

In the modern environment technology is at the heart of this debate. It's common to hear that digitization and connectivity, open access to content, and various delivery platforms will serve to democratize learning, reduce costs, and improve graduation rates. The Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) has been offered as the silver bullet to astronomical student debt, miserable graduation rates, poor student performance, disproportionate student to teacher ratios, and poor faculty performance. Much of the debate of MOOCs surrounds a single point: whether or not the computer is a good delivery mechanism for learning, and if it can replace face-to-face instruction.

Yet what is lost in the ideological debate of MOOCs and online learning is an understanding of the actual students that are taking so long to graduate, wasting so much of their own and taxpayer's money, and graduating without employable skills. Course delivery is a key part of the college experience, but it is only a part of that experience. A focus exclusively on the technological delivery platform ignores conversations of services, policies, and the various supporting analog infrastructure necessary to help alleviate emotional, logistical, or tactical problems faces by students. A focus on content delivery effectively "punts" on the ecosystem conversation of higher education: it emphasizes a tree, but ignores the forest.

Return On Education

Addressing the larger forest of education demands a more comprehensive strategy. This strategy a) proposes a less dramatic and permanent focus on "major selection", b) capitalizes on computational ability to offer personal education plans rather than generic degree audits, c) helps students understand the relationship between unique skill acquisition and potential career paths, and d) makes obvious the relationship between skills, career outcomes, earning potential, and the cost of learning. These strategies are necessary to improve all students' "Return on Education, " or ROE.

At our company MyEdu we work to drive ROE in the products we offer. We continually refine our thesis using both qualitative design research and quantitative research. Recently, our research team conducted a quantitative, statistically-significant survey of our 1+ million members, and then synthesized the data into a series of themes and visualizations. Our researchers also engaged in contextual inquiry -- a form of in-context, immersive long-form interview -- in order to understand and empathize with students of varying levels and experiences.

The Academic Journey

Our research identified that students experience various phases during their undergraduate educational experience that seem to have dramatic impact on the cost or time necessary to graduate. We capture these phases on an academic journey map: a visualization of the archetypical educational experience, over time, that emphasizes experiential touchpoints imbued with emotion.

We urge those engaged in debate of higher education to consider a pivotal moment in the academic journey: selecting a course of study. Students described selecting majors based on little or no rational data, and later feeling as though they were trapped with their decision. One student described "running out of time" in the major selection process, and so she selected Accounting because it was "at the top of the list." Other students mentioned selecting majors because their parents had encouraged them to pursue a particular field of study. "Nancy", an 18 year old psychology major, explained that she "used to want to be a criminal psychology, but my mom said I shouldn't do that because I wouldn't be a happy person after three years in that job."

After initially selecting a major and spending some time pursuing that area of study, some students went through a process of renegotiation, and over half of surveyed students have switched or considered switching their major during their academic career. When confronted with the thought of switching majors, approximately 22 percent of students reported feeling anxious, while only 13 percent reported feeling happy. Students continually described feeling as though academic milestone decisions were permanent -- that changing majors was emotionally charged and carried a social stigma. Students referenced feeling as though they let themselves, their parents, and their friends down by considering a change of direction midcourse.

Many students described a feeling of resigned commitment to a course of study -- not necessarily because they wanted to complete the degree or subject, but because their time had run out, the economics of change didn't make sense, or a host of different emotional reasons. Students articulated worry about achieving the next perceived milestone in a pre-defined path towards success. Additionally, each milestone is seen as critical, non-optional, and a "make-or-break" moment. A freshman at a well-respected state university told us "I think everyone wishes they had a plan. Even if they don't have a plan, they say 'this is my plan', because it makes them feel good to have a plan."

Recasting The Ed-Tech Debate

We're concerned that the debate of educational technology starts and stops at content delivery, yet our research shows -- not surprisingly -- that learning is only a small part of the academic journey. Technology can have a positive impact in other areas of the path to graduation, and for many college students, these are the areas where the most "disruption" is necessary, for these are the areas filled with the most anxiety. It's our hope that this form of research sheds light on the whole academic journey, so that entrepreneurs and policy makers can begin to drive influence in a more holistic and comprehensive capacity.

A free short-form version of our research summary is available at