Several attacks on the previous post

As promised, a few attacks.  I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll have thought of several more.  Oh, and also, I meant to link to this Crooked Timber thread about Coursera, with a richly combative comment thread.

  • I, along with lots of other people who succeed in traditional schools, love text and process it really fast.  Other people like other media.  Streaming video isn’t the same thing as talking to another person, but it’s plainly closer than text, and talking to another person is the way we’re built to take in information.  If streaming video weren’t a useful means of educational transmission for a substantial fraction of people, Khan Academy wouldn’t be popular.
  • Some people would say that we could get by with many fewer scientists that we have now, without compromising the amount of meaningful science that gets done.  That seems too simple to me, but I just want to record that it’s a belief held by many, and on that account maybe a small NSF-funded garden of science is sufficient to our needs.
  • Online credentials, whether from Udacity or future-ETS, could in principle lead to a massive gain in global equality.  Nothing is stopping 300 people from China and Brazil from being among the 500 people Google hires.  I was going to say the same thing about inequality within the US but here I have to stop myself; my sense is that massive availability of online resources has not e.g. made it just as good to be a 14-year-old math star in Nebraska as it is to be a 14-year-old math star in suburban Boston.  Reader comments on this point welcome, since I know there are lots of former 14-year-old math stars out there.
  • More on within-US equality; it’s easy to see gains flowing to kids whose parents are rich enough to buy them a prep course or just buy them the time to spend a year at home studying.  On the other hand, this seems no less rich-kid-friendly than the current system, in which kids whose parents can afford college graduate debt-free, and the rest, who still have little choice but to attend if they want professional jobs, spend decades of their working life chipping away at a massive debt.
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3 thoughts on “Several attacks on the previous post

  1. [...] posts on the future of higher education: What, if anything, is the future of the university? and Several attacks on the previous post; see also this Crooked Timber comment thread. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first [...]

  2. davidmfisher says:

    First, I comment on this thread and not the last one, since I think Danny’s comment on “God Save the Queen” really transcends response and should stand on it’s own.

    Second, there are a lot of issues here that I can’t address, but I suspect that the main change is ideological and not technological. The idea that higher education exists because of some “compact with the business community” is pretty modern and neo-liberal. And if all traditional university education is doing is certifying the skills of future employees for various corporations, there is absolutely no reason to expect we will maintain our near monopoly on that task for any length of time. I actually think it is fairly hard to argue that universities are very good at providing comprehensible and useful credentials for potential employers.

    But that does beg the question of why we’ve maintained a monopoly on higher education for so long. Mass courses could have been offered more cheaply by mail or by public access television or more recently cable television. (This point is made by several commenters on the “Crooked Timber” link.)

    Not very long ago, university education in this country was much cheaper. As also discussed in many comments on the “Crooked Timber” link and many other places on the internet, the rising costs really cannot be ascribed to the cost of instruction.

    In very recent history, costs have been rising precipitously due to cut backs in state support for education.

    And though it is way too simplistic, one might say that it used to be that the state was willing to pay to have educated citizens and but no longer is, so the universities are adapting by trying to sell credentials to industry.

    Though I have to admit that the last weekend leaves me almost convinced that the real primary purpose of university education is to allow the young and well to do to spend four years playing beer pong. (The Little 500, which took place last weekend, brings out the worst in Bloomington.) That at least, the online courses can’t take away from us.

  3. Kevin says:

    I think that these services are the future of the textbook, not the future of education. But I don’t think the university is the future of education either. Education is a long, painstaking process that begins when we are born and (hopefully) continues throughout our lives. Coursera, Udacity, MITx are solving a knowledge problem for high school+ “smart kids”. Khan and Reasoning Mind are solving the knowledge problem for elementary – high school. And just like with textbooks, those best served by them are the ones who need the least help.

    There are other companies, notably Knewton, who are working with traditional universities to revamp their remedial education with an online learning component, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a college degree for your Average Joe. Not as sexy, but has vastly more direct impact and is perhaps *even scarier* for the traditional model because it’s proving that even the Average Joe can succeed in these situations with minimal intervention.

    Still, I’d bet the farm that the future of education is in the teacherification of the general populace. Everybody has a skill or idea to teach, and with traditional jobs becoming fewer and fewer, this is one which will never go away. Elementary schools will organize lower level education, in which more people will participate as teachers or readers or math-problem-partners. Higher levels of education will be organized by “high schools” and “universities”. Core subject teachers and “guidance counselors” will be permanent faculty, but most of the teachers will be part time, using these online textbooks/tests/credentials the same way we use textbooks and AP exams now. We need *lots* of these people. Of course, the job is not as glamorous as “professor”, but the conception of professor as teacher for the masses perhaps never existed.

    tl;dr: So far we’re solving a knowledge problem but are nowhere near solving the education problem.

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