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Is Partnership Between Elite Universities and Big Tech Inevitable?

I think what we learned from the last six months is that we can make online education work, but the immediate transition was difficult from the faculty point of view and is a huge adjustment for the students.

Thomas Gilbert, Associate Professor of Finance at the University of Washington Foster School of Business

With the shift of elite universities online due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, new students are now seeking to defer enrollment. And many current students are not willing to pay the steep price tag for an fully-online education, with social networking and on-campus experiences removed from the colleges’ offerings. Universities have already been under fire for high costs promoting student debt, so how can universities keep demanding those price if their offerings are remote?

Over the past forty years education tuition in the United States has skyrocketed 260 percent. In 2019, the average cost of attending a four-year public college was over $100,000; to attend a private college cost over $200,000. This price model has been sustained with the majority of students admitted at the top 80 universities coming from the top 1 percent versus the bottom 40 percent.

As with many things in the current digital age, Big Tech may be the key.

Professor Scott Galloway, a visionary in business and education, predicted that prestigious universities will invariably partner with Big Tech and expand their online offerings and student enrollment. We spoke with other experts in Big Tech and professors knowledgeable on the subject to give their take on the controversial topic.

Universities Adapting to the Pandemic

There is much debate about college and university ranking systems, but most elite universities are commonly recognized as hosting strong educational programs, research excellence, networking opportunities, and eventual student success. Much of the student experience attained during their education at these institutions also involves the social and community experiences attained by being physically present on-campus.

Taking student learners at these institutions online, while often feasible from an educational perspective, removes much of the value students seek in attending a normally on-campus experience.

“I think what we learned from the last six months is that we can make online education work, but the immediate transition was difficult from the faculty point of view and is a huge adjustment for the students,” said Thomas Gilbert, associate professor of finance at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “We made it work, but I don’t see it as a long term solution.”

Thomas Gilbert is an expert on various topics, including asset pricing, business valuation, economics, financial markets, managerial economics, public finance, and regulation. He has conducted research on endowments and capital structures at universities. He has been at UW since 2008 and previously also worked as a chief financial officer and analyst at various London financial firms.

Gilbert explained that purely from an educational point of view—especially with lessons learned from spring—offering a quality remote learning product is completely feasible. The quality of education in the academic sense will not be adversely affected should universities be forced to move online in autumn.

However, it is important to separate the pure academic learning of topics and the material learning of skills for certain subjects, he said. For science courses, it is near impossible to have students complete laboratory sections in their kitchen, while students in geology majors may not be able to meet at sites to study rock formations. The physical experience of learning and social engagement at a university cannot be replicated and is also lost over the internet, he stated.

“There’s nothing that can replace in-person education, especially when people value the connection on campus between the faculty and the students,” Gilbert said. “Personal growth is a lot of the learning that happens between 18 and 22, while networking and social engagement are also important for both undergraduate and graduate students. If you’re stuck in your living room in Texas while attending Harvard online, this doesn’t happen. And students are complaining the $50,000 plus price tag on private education is too expensive. So, there is a shift in product price offering because the in-person value associated with networking and those other interactions is obviously gone.”

As a result, the standard price for tuition at these elite universities is recognized as too high and demands a price adjustment or revamped product offering.

“If universities have to move fully online and students cannot come back to campus, then I think there will be a revision in the price, probably from the top down,” Gilbert commented.

He added, “Professors still have to spend a ton of time—if not more time—preparing these online classes and providing as high of a quality course as we can. That being said, the in-person interaction part cannot be replaced virtually, and out-of-the-classroom interactions are gone. This allows for a reasonable argument to be made that the fees that typically support all these out of the classroom experiences are also removed.”

Room and board will likely not be charged if students will not be on campus. This was already the case in the spring when there were refunds done by most universities for room and board, Gilbert explained. Universities will also likely offer a discount or remove fees associated with campus amenity use and sports.

Even so, some collaborations between Big Tech and universities have cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

A Spotlight on Two Initiatives: AWS Educate and the Alibaba Cloud Academic Empowerment Program (AAEP)

Heightened awareness of the collaboration between universities and big tech in the wake of COVID-19 suggests the potential for a new, online education model that could include partnerships between the institutions with potential for certification and stronger career prospects.

Seattle-based Amazon Web Services (AWS) has rolled out a slew of initiatives to support remote learning objectives of brick-and-mortar institutions, which are moving education online.

“Amazon Web Services has collaborated with higher education institutions across the globe to address a number of challenges related to the continuity of learning, including supporting schools with the infrastructure and scalability to transition to remote learning, making it easier to access content for remote learning and preparing educators to teach online,” said Allison Flicker, corporate communications specialist at Amazon.

“Through the global AWS Educate program, we are implementing collaborative efforts at scale with education leaders, employers with a demand for cloud computing, and IT professionals, as well as policymakers to close the technical skills gap,” Flicker explained.

In higher education, efforts include initiatives between community colleges and four-year institutions to create opportunities to develop a variety of pathways to cloud jobs through cloud degrees, specializations, or certificate offerings.

For example, in Virginia, George Mason University faculty worked with AWS Educate curriculum designers to create a BAS degree path that will equip students with technical skills and hands-on experiences. The partnership streamlines the path to a four-year degree and entry into the workforce by eliminating traditional transfer obstacles, providing students with additional coaching pathways to high-demand careers.

Across the globe, the University of Bahrain (UOB) recently launched a computing degree program to prepare the next generation of cloud professionals. UOB introduced a one-year cloud computing certificate, and a full cloud computing bachelor’s degree—a first in the Middle East—in collaboration with AWS Educate’s Cloud Degree initiative.

In Asia, Xiamen University Malaysia (XMUM), the overseas campus of a top-ranking Southern Chinese university, announced plans on May 19, 2020, to partner with Alibaba Cloud—the largest data intelligence cloud service provider in the Asia Pacific and third-largest globally—to launch the Alibaba Cloud Academic Empowerment Program (AAEP). The program is intended to enhance educational opportunities and boost career prospects in the digital economy for XMUM students.

“XMUM’s cloud computing curriculum will provide students and staff with unparalleled access to resources put together by our experts and will also allow them to host collaborative workshops and training activities,” said Jordy Cao, General Manager, Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Malaysia, during the e-signing ceremony held online in May.

XMUM students will be able to join Alibaba Cloud’s Student Education Program, which offers graduates a certification from Alibaba Cloud. Alibaba Cloud’s team will also play an advisory role at XMUM to ensure the content of courses remains relevant to and focused on the future needs of the industry, so students are prepared to move into the workforce.

In addition to its direct collaboration with XMUM, Alibaba Cloud Academy also built a virtual learning community on the Chinese communication platform DingTalk. To date, a dozen universities have joined the community, with around 800 students participating in and pursuing online training and certification through the platform.

It’s worth noting that these efforts are predominantly focused on tech education. There is also the question of whether these efforts are accelerated, or even purely new. Gilbert contends they are neither.

“In business schools, we do this a lot already, even before we moved online there’s lots of courses that bring in business executives to teach half courses or just a few lectures,” Gilbert said. “I think these things are always valuable and students are always keen to be close to companies and know exactly what is going on in the real world so they can have an easier time getting a job. But there’s a difference between offering a certificate and the University of Washington stamping its brand on a certificate offered by Amazon. The academic certificate is more fully valued because this is sort of the stamp of approval that a student has mastered this learning content and skills.”

“Partnerships between big tech companies and universities have already existed for a long time,” Gilbert commented. “But I’m not sure this is related to the current crisis, and I’m not sure this is necessarily going to accelerate in the current environment or decelerate. I think it is something that will keep expanding at a regular pace.”

The Future of Big Tech and Elite Schools

Clearly, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on collaboration between elite universities and Big Tech, as well as the introduction of certifications and programs bearing the names of these giants at academic institutions.

Even so, these new collaborations, especially for certificate programs, are limited.

Many educators can likely agree however that while technology companies can help making the learning components even smoother and more interactive, nothing will quite replace the face-to-face interactions students and teachers at these brick-and-mortar campuses are accustomed to, in their current interaction.

So, whether collaborations between big tech and elite universities will solidify into a true alternative learning and business model for elite universities remains to be seen.

Either way, it provides an interesting development to track the evolution of educational training over time.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.