Please Tighten Your Seat Belts

Two recent articles underscore the uncertainty about the future of higher education. In “The End of the University as We Know It,” Nathan Harden (author of “Sex and God at Yale”) describes how online courses and other innovations will force radical change in higher education. He thinks it will enable an enormous number of future students to obtain a quality education at low cost. If that happens, “then the end of the university as we know it is nothing to fear. Indeed it is something to celebrate.” But meanwhile the tech wizards at Ed Tech Now are buying none of this. They think MOOCs and other dramatic developments are “hot air” and destined to be the next high-tech “bubble”.

Who is right? Harden.

The EdTechers make very plausible points. They say that too much of the focus of MOOCs and so many other online start-ups is on volume and speed. A gazillion students in a course. Nifty ways by Coursera and others to mimic a professor’s grading in courses of thousands. Instant access to virtually unlimited course information. But, they say, there is no real business model that passes the smell test. And no real progress, they claim, in improving education itself.

But it is important to think of all this as a turbulent process, in which pioneers will come and go while the accumulated knowledge will lead over time to revolutionary change. Many start ups will fall flat and only a few will create millionaires and maybe billionaires. It is hard to know which – if I knew I’d be making money, not writing blogs. This is exactly the process that surrounded the creation of the web. There were plenty of failed business models, doubts over whether it could produce any commercial value, and skepticism that it would be any more than a toy. The pundits at Ed Tech Now need to remember that.

Harden understands this. New business organizations for education, not just online services, will slowly remold the “university.” And, importantly, these developments will adapt to and influence a rethinking of how we educate young people, and how we open access to education for young Americans. It’s the pressure on thinking about how to teach – or better, “educate” – that’s the biggest potential payoff.

And as we think about how to teach, we will need to spend a lot more time thinking too about why some young people seem able to take advantage of opportunities and some do not. Dropping out is a terrible waste. Radical change creates possibilities but that is not enough. As I’ve written recently on the issue of economic mobility, there are cultural and other obstacles to many Americans achieving the American Dream, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. We can and must take steps to address those obstacles. One of the great advantages of technological change in education is that it can help us do that.

It will be a bumpy journey, so hold on. But the end of the university as we know it will indeed be a new opportunity for millions.

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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