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50+ Percent Off! The Walmart of Education

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

There are countless in-depth analyses of Walmart's commercial business strategies and community impact, covering both the good and not-so-good. But it can also be useful to pick and choose your research focus among the company's successful characteristics that might positively inform your own industry. Here, our discussion with Calvin College Senior Instructional Designer Daniel Christian exclusively explores a strategy that, with the use of technology, would result in a 50 percent or more savings to students on a higher education.

Mary Grush: What is 'the Walmart of Education'? And is this something that we can see examples of right now?

Daniel Christian: First of all, 'the Walmart of Education' is a concept — a vision — not a set of specific products, at least not yet. Back in 2008, when I first documented this idea, I called it "the forthcoming Walmart of education," because it was definitely not yet a reality. But I believe it is coming into fruition now, and there are several examples I can point to.

Among the key ingredients of this vision were that there would be methods of obtaining a degree at a savings of 50 percent or more, and that the learning materials would be created and delivered by a team of specialists.

In 2008, the 50 percent savings figure was a somewhat outlandish claim — but in fact, today we are seeing that 50 percent or more in many cases, and free education offerings are not unusual. Like Walmart, the idea for higher education is to offer more for less, through volume offerings.

While subject matter experts will still be critical — learning is messy — various technologies are coming onto the horizon that will help deliver a personalized, customized approach.

Grush: What are some additional elements of this strategy?

Christian: We need to create far more accessible, less expensive alternatives in higher education. One essential element of a strategy to accomplish this is the use of a team-based or collaborative approach to creating streams of multimedia-based content. It's not difficult to imagine how teams — including multi-institutional collaborations — can produce high-quality content and obtain their return on investment (ROI) via volume. Another element here is 24x7x365 access, in order to offer this content to the widest audience — at peoples' convenience and per their schedules and learning needs. And an important part of the strategy is amassing the initial resources and investments: the push to get the ball rolling, if you will. With that momentum, it becomes easier to sustain sizable programs and offerings.

Grush: Could you give me some current, real-world examples of programs you consider to have tapped into this 'Walmart of education' strategy?

Christian: I'll name just a few. The first one I'd like to point to is AT&T joining up with Udacity and Georgia Tech, to offer a $7K masters in computer science. That's an incredible price for that degree and a great model for collaboration. Another example is that Berklee College of Music's tuition for the coming year will be $36,514 (annual) for their on-campus face-to-face courses, but it drops to $16,500 per year for their online program. That's better than a 50 percent savings online. And of course, Khan Academy's stated goal is "…changing education for the better, by providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere."

There are several examples of MOOCs that reflect the principles of the 'Walmart of education'. People can take these courses either free, or very inexpensively. But that doesn't mean it's not sustainable from a business perspective: I noticed that Coursera has hit a million dollars in revenue from its verified certificates, which just launched back in January. They're offering the verified certificates at a very low cost, but they're making money via volume. Another interesting collaboration is between Google and edX on, a Web site to help institutions host online courses. edX is a consortium of 28 institutions globally, pooling resources at scale.

Grush: While the strategy opens up new possibilities for access to an affordable higher education and potentially a vastly greater range of choices, are students ready to be 'Walmart of education' shoppers, so to speak?

Christian: Probably many are not ready to be self-directed learners. I think this is something that will change over time. And it probably has to: The credentialing pathways are changing; you can no longer expect a degree to last 40 years. There's real danger in the status quo. With the rapidly shrinking half-life of information, we are now required to be lifelong learners, continually reinventing ourselves. We need to be co-learners of this environment with our students — helping them tap into streams of relevant content throughout their lifetimes.



About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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