The History Channel and the University of Oklahoma have announced that they are partnering up to offer an online history class at OU next semester. The partnership is mutually beneficial to the History Channel and the university because the History Channel has archives and multi-media that the university would like to access while the university has a paying audience that the History Channel would like to tap into, as well as offering legitimacy to the History Channel’s undertaking (the History Channel would not be able to seriously offer their content online for such a fee if it weren’t tied to an academic course because people would just be content to watching it on tv). The class will be offered on OU’s Janux system, an online portal developed by the university, that allows for multi-media presentations, quizzes and tests, as well as the ability for students to interact and discuss topics with one another. The class is offered for $500 for students and $250 for “Life Long Learners” and credits will transfer not just to Oklahoma but to any university that will accept them, students will also receive a “Badge of Completion” from the History Channel. Aside from a bunch of nifty buzzwords like “groundbreaking”, “Immersive” and “competitively priced” in the History Channel’s press release, not much information about the actual nuts and bolts of how the course will work is given, which leaves the door open for everyone’s favorite past-time….idle speculation.

The university system is broken, it’s obvious to see. Colleges are charging more while providing less value on the return. For-Profit Colleges are on the rise and the internet and mass communication is changing everything. Something has to change with higher education and seeing what happens with this history course might offer some insights into what is possible and what might be next. Will universities reform and offer more to students while bringing prices down to somewhere near manageable levels or will the university system collapse under a heap of its own waste and make way for an online private system that delivers only what students need to further their education without charging them for services that they might not need much less ever use?

The history course will be taught by Prof. Steve Gillon, University of Oklahoma History Professor as well as a Resident Scholar at the History Channel. Understanding Professor Gillon’s role in the class will be interesting. Will Gillon be taking an active role in the class such as leading discussions, holding meaningful office hours, organizing small groups to meet on campus…etc? Or will he basically just be someone to email about questions and more or less just a link between the History Channel and OU to keep up appearances? If the university system is to stay intact, that is brick and mortar campuses staffed by accredited faculty, then Prof. Gillon will have to justify his position by offering some sort of value that students can’t get through Janux alone, specifically by making himself available to the students in order to expand on topics covered and provide learning outside of the digital classroom. If, on the other hand, the professor is only a resource for the students to turn to in order to just find out when assignments are due, or how their grade was calculated or ask questions about technical issues regarding the web portal then Prof. Gillon’s days might be numbered. The History Channel will be more than able to provide that kind of information to the students and can probably do so for a fraction of the cost of a professor’s tenured salary.

Another interesting aspect to watch will be just who is the History Channel gearing this class towards? The class is offered to OU students for $500. The cost of tuition alone at Oklahoma is $3,957 for residents and $16,146 for out of state students. At 15 credits per semester, that comes out to about $396 and $1614 per class (assuming that most classes are offered at 3 credits a piece like most universities do). It isn’t clear whether the cost of the class is in addition to regular tuition or if students will be credited tuition costs and have to pay the rest out of pocket. If it’s the former, then the question is ‘will students be willing to pay extra for a unique class?’ and if it’s the latter then the same questions remains for resident students but will out of state students get refunded $1,100? I can’t imagine resident students much less the university allowing that to stand for very long. Even more interesting is the History Channel’s inclusion of “Life Long Learners” to their target audience, as well as giving out “Badges of Completion”. People like learning. And people are willing to pay to learn. Is the History Channel hedging its bet that the future of higher education might be made up of people independently learning about whatever subject they are interested in from the comfort of their own homes, whether they are enrolled in some sort of structured program or just because they are that interested in a subject? Is the future of higher education going to be cherry picking courses offered from different educational websites? Just as interesting is the Badge of Completion. This is essentially the History Channel accrediting itself, which brings up the biggest variable in the future of higher education: accreditation.

Universities might reform and cut out the waste and bring down costs. They might focus on what they do well and work to increase the amount of value they offer students. They might even someday switch to being Universities in name only that offer all online classes while campuses become a thing of the past. But universities will never give up their status as the major source for accreditation without a dogfight. There’s no reason that colleges should be the only sources of accreditation. True, For-Profit Colleges can be accredited but the reality is that traditional colleges and universities are the big boys on the block when it comes to handing out degrees that get framed and hung walls. The only reason why this is so is because until very recently it has always been so; that’s the way it’s always been done. And anyone who knows even the slightest little bit about Lean thinking knows that that is the worst possible reasoning for anything. So what? But those who are invested in the status quo growl at change, often under false pretenses. The political class and academia being as intertwined as they are, they are not going to let universities’ virtual monopoly on accreditation dissolve easily. The Feds just announced that they are going to tighten down on For-Profit Colleges that leave students with too much debt to income after graduation. While not totally unjustified, it is suspect that the government is only going after For-Profit Colleges while traditional universities get a pass for the same transgressions. In the case of Corinthians College, which is owned by a corporation, it’s beholden to its stock holders and there isn’t much reason to believe that a corporation would do much better than a government funded university at providing value to students while eliminating waste. So what’s to be done?

In the early 20th century, when the idea of business schools was just emerging there was a debate over how they should be structured. The side that eventually won out was the side that advocated for general business administration education and as a result, we’re now stuck with professional managers who run every business the same regardless of the industry, by the numbers. Cut costs, reduce headcount, offshore labor and manage the brand and maximize share-holder profits. The side that lost the debate on how to structure business schools advocated for specializing by industry. If a student wanted to go into the railroad industry then they would go to railroad school and learn everything about the industry from top to bottom. If they wanted to go into the shipping industry, they would learn every aspect of that specific industry. With changes in higher education on the horizon, might this be an opportunity to revisit that debate and choose a different path? Could the automakers get together and decide what the keys to the auto industry are and then offer an online program, at the end of which each graduating student is prepared to go directly into the industry armed with the specific knowledge they need to succeed? Could Lean thinkers get together and develop a curriculum around Lean Principles and any company looking for a Continuous Improvement Officer or an Operations Manager or whatever they might want, find a person with a “Badge of Completion” from Lean University Online and know that that person has been taught what the company is looking for in a new higher. Why can’t industries band together, develop their own coursework to offer through their own system online and handout accreditation that meets their own industry specific standards?

It’s interesting that the University of Oklahoma should name their online forum Janux. If you watch the promotional video on the website they say it’s because Janus was the ancient god of gates and doorways and Janux is a doorway to better learning and all that ra-ra stuff, but that’s not 100% accurate. Janus was the Roman god of new beginnings and he had two faces, one face on the back of his head looking into the past while the other looked forward towards the future. Higher Education is changing, of that there is no question. The only questions are how and in what direction and is that the right direction?