During the past few weeks, American attention has been focused on two major events of the year: college graduation and the NBA playoffs. Typically, I only care about one of these things- and it’s not the one where Jack Nicholson sits on the sidelines (though that certainly could make some interminable graduation ceremonies more interesting). But at my house, playoff fever is dominant, and I am nightly subjected to a string of highly personal commentary and overly dramatic physical responses that, had I known I would have to witness, would have made me think twice before walking down the aisle a few years ago.
Surveying this nightly drama has gotten me thinking: Maybe higher education can learn a thing or two from basketball. Or, more specifically: Are traditional colleges like older, more experienced NBA teams, struggling to keep up with younger, more energetic models?
This playoff season, age and experience face significant challenges from youth and energy. Two veteran teams, the show biz war horse known as the LA Lakers, with its glamorous stage-named players (ex: “Metta World Peace,” aka Ron Artest) and celebrity fan base, and the Boston Celtics, with the most championship titles in NBA history, are fighting to emerge on top. According to The Hoop Doctors, both teams are currently fielding the most experienced players based on age weighted by playing time. But they have both struggled to dominate against teams that have less playing time experience, the Celtics against the dynamic Miami Heat, and the Lakers lost their championship bid in humiliating fashion to the Oklahoma Thunder, a much younger and less experienced team.
In a way, higher education is in the same position as the Lakers and the Celtics. Older state universities and private colleges face competition from younger universities like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. In some areas, such as online education, these younger universities previously enjoyed uncontested shots, launching and expanding their online programs at a rapid rate, leading to increased enrollments and dominance in the field of online education. As noted by Swift Economics, “The advantages of online education make their competition against brick-and-mortar schooling obvious” because “online education sites like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University offer students the ability to get their education without sacrificing their livelihoods by fitting schooling into their free time.”
Like all good teams, traditional colleges have not given up trying to dominate the field of online education. In a dramatic rebound, Harvard University, the most venerable university in the nation but one that was not noted for aggressive online education development, got an assist from the more experienced Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when they jointly launched edX, a collaborative online platform aimed at offering an expanded program of free online courses and resources.
Though not necessarily designed to compete for the same pool of students that make up the student body of other online universities such as Phoenix and Kaplan, the Harvard and MIT collaboration is a kind of zone defense aimed at working toward the domination of online education. Also, both schools are trend-setters in education and many other older institutions may follow suit with similar programs. The creation of edX could signal the start of a fast break, as more traditional colleges and universities scramble to catch up to the pace set by the major online universities. For many of them, such action could be a slam dunk, because they already have impressive reputations and brand name recognition.
Fortunately, competition among colleges is unlike the NBA playoffs in one important way: there is room for more than one winner. As colleges and universities work to create better and more expanded online opportunities, students at all schools will benefit from improved methods and greater variety in courses. While some may find the following conclusion debatable as they succumb to playoff fever, I think there’s more at stake in higher education. While many millions of dollars are at stake in the NBA playoffs, online education competition will directly affect the futures of millions of students.