What, if anything, is the future of the university?

My colleague and Wisconsin Institute for Discovery director David Krakauer says it might look a lot like WID:

Inspired by such successful endeavors as the Santa Fe Institute, MITs Media Lab, the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, new cross-disciplinary centers and initiatives such as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery are designed to overcome many of the obvious limitations of the aging departmental models, which at worst can act as an impediment to creative thinking and synthetic endeavors, and whose reward and promotion mechanisms often exclude some of our most creative minds. Many of these centers — like our most successful technology companies — recognize the power of social life, building cafes, restaurants and lounges directly into the research environment.

But lots of other people think the physical university, at least apart from a few elite schools, is 100% a dead letter, thanks to our new ability to offer courses online at scale.  Maybe the future looks like Khan Academy, or Coursera, or Udacity, whose founder, Sebastian Thrum, foresees only 10 institutions offering something called “higher education” 50 years from now.

But what will this thing be?

Keep this in mind.  The ability to distribute information at scale is not new, though the Internet makes that information vastly more widespread and, in the long run, cheaper.  You don’t need to take a course online to get that information, and it might not even be the best way.  For instance, why watch streaming video?  There’s a competing channel which is massively faster, more flexible, random-access, which moves at the students’ own pace, which is accessible to speakers of every language, and which is trivially searchable: namely, text.  Streaming video has its uses, but streaming video is television; text is the Internet.  And text on every imaginable subject is already available on the Internet, to everyone, for free.  Getting that information into the hands of every person in the planet with a mobile device is a solved problem.

But:

Information is not what Udacity is selling.  And it’s not what existing universities are selling!  What we sell, of course, is a credential; a certification, backed by our expertise, that the credentialee has mastered some body of knowledge.  At Stanford, they sell that credential to students to help them get jobs.  At Udacity, they’re planning to sell the credentials to businesses, to help them select employees.  And in a global sense, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin and everybody else are in that business too, because we operate as part of a grand compact between ourselves and the business community.  They have agreed that a substantial chunk of the American population will spend four years in college instead of devoting their labor to increasing the GNP, and I assume this is because they believe in the credentials we offer; that students who complete college are better at their jobs, and students who do better in college are better than students who do worse.

We sell credentials; and with the receipts obtained from those sales we educate students and we do research.  Udacity hopes to be able to credential just as well (more precisely:  maybe just as well and maybe not, but in any event at such larger scale that they provide more information to employers) and to use the resulting revenues to educate students.

But why does education need to be involved?  For a few fast-moving topics, Udacity may be able to claim that their lock on the most au courant experts means they’re offering something no one else can.  But most topics aren’t fast-moving in that way.

What I wonder is whether the future of education won’t look less like Udacity and more like ETS.  Education is expensive.  Assessment is cheap.  I don’t think future-ETS can provide assessment as accurate as Udacity can.  But the nature of disruptive technology, if I understand it correctly, isn’t that it provides something better; it’s that it provides something cheaper and faster which is good enough.  The toniest companies of the future might want to see a certificate from Udacity; for everybody else, future-SAT will do.

Not that this is necessarily bad news for Udacity, or for education!  Something like Udacity may not need much capital to persist; it can carry on as a boutique operation, serving Google or Google’s successors, and still have enough resources to deliver on-line education to millions of people all over the world.

It’s mostly bad news for research, I think.  Because the link between credentialing and research is even more contingent and breakable than the link between credentialing and education.  Udacity, as far as I know, is not going to pay people to do research in mathematics, or biology, or physics, or history, or linguistics.  Those tasks are, at the moment, part of the universities’ missions, but not part of their business model.  There doesn’t have to be a massive research apparatus in the United States; for most of our history, there wasn’t one.

So there’s one future to contemplate.  No scientific research except for the small, product-directed gardens within companies and a slightly bigger garden funded by the federal government, the latter no doubt a constant target for budget cuts, like PBS.  Kids start work at the end of high school, and those who can find the time study for the future-ETS placement test so they can get a better job.  How does that sound?

Important note:  I am ambivalent about the correctness of much of what I’ve written here; I am posting this as an experiment, to see what happens if I work out thoughts in public.  Next post will consist of attacks on this post, the correctness of which attacks I’m also ambivalent about.  Special attention to be paid to the superiority of video to text, and the advantages the version of the future described above might have over the status quo, especially as concerns global equality.

Important note 2:  Before commenting, please listen to “God Save The Queen,” as I did before beginning this post.  It’s sort of a mental prerequisite for talking about the future.

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3 thoughts on “What, if anything, is the future of the university?

  1. Danny Calegari says:

    I love that song! (wait, does that mean I’m showing my age?) Please play it at my funeral!

  2. [...] Ellenberg has written a couple interesting blog 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 [...]

  3. I think universities also offer the entire intellectual environment with peers who are studying and learning alongside you. I’m trying to imagine what Rice University would have been like if I had been taking every class online in my dorm room– or even in my room at home two states away. I’m not sure I would have ever learned how to think critically, nor how to discuss and reason at a higher level. My peers at Rice were super smart, and I learned as much if not more from them than I learned from my professors.

    Another part of that environment is the social community that helped me to learn self-discipline, both in my working habits and my thinking habits. Having friends and professors who are expecting me to show up created social pressure which led me to (fairly) good habits. I also strove to make a contribution, and to do that in the social environment I had to learn to think about things from many different perspectives. If I had been taking all my classes online, learning discipline to show up and to get good work done would have been more sink-or-swim.

    Both of these things are provided by every university or community college at various levels of rigor. But I don’t think even the best online university could compete in these areas. Even worse, nobody will have hard evidence to support or contradict this thesis– The most difficult thing to assess is whether your students have really mastered the tools of a course in order to think critically and be successful when approaching future unsolved problems. I don’t think the exams in Thrun’s class will be a predictor of genuine critical thinking and problem solving skills.

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