Last night, as I was having a drink with some new friends, I saw why online education has yet to disrupt the Hilltop, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.
Sitting and talking with other interns in D.C. for the summer, from Harvard, Vanderbilt, Brown, Georgetown and Bowdoin, I saw that they were all interested in politics or business in some form. Although they worked in different places, most had met through their common residence in George Washington University housing, which serves as a networking hub for ambitious college students during the summer months.
These sorts of interactions during the summer or the school year, which most of us take for granted, set top universities like Georgetown apart from the others. The utilitarian transfer of information that online education offers simply can’t match this because it provides no chances for networking with employers or socializing with our peers who will go on to be both lifelong friends and valuable professional contacts.
Take, for example, the School of Foreign Service, one of Georgetown’s strongest areas of competitive advantage in the marketplace. From an apartment in Iowa (no offense to any readers from Iowa), you could watch lectures by the most prominent professors, complete all the assignments and emerge with a truly advanced knowledge of international affairs.
But living on campus in Washington with hundreds of other ambitious future diplomats, building personal relationships with professors and working internships at think tanks or government agencies are what add actual value to Georgetown’s exorbitant tuition prices.
So far, online education has not been able to automate this social aspect of a top-tier college education.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have great potential to democratize education on a large scale and provide opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the access. However, they have yet to fully deliver on this promise. According to a recent survey by edX, MOOC students in the United States had a median age of 31 and 70 percent already had at least a Bachelor’s degree.
On the other hand, Georgetown has succeeded spectacularly thus far in using MOOCs as essentially content-filled advertisements.
This has been great for the two following reasons. First, they have near-zero marginal costs after the up-front investment of recording lectures and material, and second, they can differentiate the university in its areas of expertise.
Of the five current offerings from the university on edX, three highlight areas of expertise generally associated with Georgetown: “Globalization’s Winners and Losers,” “Terrorism and Counterterrorism” and “Introduction to Bioethics.” The university has been able to better showcase its areas of competitive advantage without actually awarding degrees or other credentials through the online market.
Additionally, Georgetown has done a great job of positioning itself among the market leaders of online education. The following passage from a recent New York Times article illustrates its status as a forerunner: “EdX, of which Harvard was a co-founder with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, counts Dartmouth and Georgetown among its charter members.”
Some of you might remember the “Exploring College Options” information session tour from high school, hosted by Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn and Stanford. I’d argue that this information session, with its glossy postcards bearing the logos of all five host schools, serves an almost identical purpose as it positions Georgetown in the upper echelon in higher education.
Georgetown would do well to continue to boost its brand with updated MOOC offerings in areas of competitive advantage (international affairs, law, business, etc.) while investing in the aspects of its in-person degree programs which have made it immune to disruption so far.