The Pony Express was a revolutionary system established in 1860 from Missouri to California that reduced letter delivery time from 22 to 10 days. The network of horses, riders, and stables expedited mail service in a spectacular way, but fewer than two years later, the entire company was bankrupt. The transcontinental telegraph was completed in 1860, and two days later, the Pony Express closed. This new technology did not force the Pony Express to change; it made it obsolete.
George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and a NAFSA senior fellow, uses this example to illustrate the crossroads at which higher education finds itself. A veteran of higher education and presenter at NAFSA's 2013 Annual Conference in St. Louis, Mehaffy says that more changes have occurred in higher education and technology in the past year than in all of his previous 39 years of experience. He urges institutions to consider the response to such rapid change and discuss how to transform with technology.
Mehaffy argues that the models used in higher education are outdated and unable to fully meet the demands of our globally connected world. One example is the evolution of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which presents the biggest threat to the traditional university model. Blended courses, comprised of both online and classroom interaction; flipped courses, where lectures are delivered online and classroom time is dedicated to instructions; and even self-guided computer-based programs are all alternatives to the traditional method of instruction.
The future, however, is not bleak for the institutions and educators so long as they adapt, and Mehaffy does not warn of a future where all jobs are replaced with computers. He instead encourages reflection on why we bring students together in classrooms and on campus in order to determine how to best provide them with value. Higher education institutions will have to show their worth in the face of so many alternative models and adapt as needed to avoid going the way of the Pony Express.
Read "Challenge and Change" by George Mehaffy for more information about current models in higher education and the rise of alternatives.