Tag Archives: internet

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.


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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But he ate the banana with such authenticity

From the NYTimesMag’s interview with Marc Andreessen, one of the founders of Netscape:

After hearing a story about Foursquare’s co-founder, Dennis Crowley, walking into a press event in athletic wear and eating a banana, I developed a theory that bubbles might be predicted by fashion: when tech founders can’t be bothered to appear businesslike, the power has shifted too much in their favor.

Believe it or not, this goes deep into the interior mentality of the engineer, which is very truth-oriented. When you’re dealing with machines or anything that you build, it either works or it doesn’t, no matter how good of a salesman you are. So engineers not only don’t care about the surface appearance, but they view attempts to kind of be fake on the surface as fundamentally dishonest.

I got a B+ in “Intro to Sociology,” and even I know that to appear in a business setting wearing sweats and polishing off lunch is as much of a performance, and as deeply concerned with “surface appearance,” as is showing up in a $5000 suit.  Actually, sorry, a little bit more concerned with surface appearance.

Bonus points for the suggestion that success in the Internet industry has nothing to do with salesmanship.


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Why Math Overflow works, and why it might not

I spent a bunch of time yesterday playing with Math Overflow, the new math Q&A website launched last week by Berkeley grad students David Brown and Anton Gerashchenko. The site is built on the popular Stack Exchange platform, giving users the power not only to ask and answer questions but to vote on other people’s answers, giving those users “reputation points” which they can use to unlock more features of the site.

I was chatting with Tim Gowers last month, in the context of PolyMath, about what made a website “sticky,” or, to put it more pungently, “addictive” — what makes users willing to go back to the same site multiple times a day, and keep it up for weeks or months?  Math Overflow seems to have this quality in a particularly pure form.  Unlike PolyMath — where showing up half a day late might well give you no chance of catching up and making a contribution — Math Overflow offers a constantly changing array of new questions.  Questions to which you might know the answer right off the top of your head — or at least if you take ten minutes to think about it, or just a quick half-hour to scan through some references or…

Now at this point you might say “I could answer this, but I don’t really have the time right now.”  But then somebody else would answer it first! And then you wouldn’t get that warm feeling of helping somebody out!

I think this quality of rightnowness is what’s kind of great about Math Overflow, the thing that will get a lot of people to look at it consistently and thus make it a useful place to ask questions.  But there’s also something worrisome about it.  It shouldn’t be important to be the first one to answer.  A much more rational response to that “right now” feeling would be:  “I don’t need the warm feeling.  An earnest, hard-working grad student will come along and give the same answer I would have given; except the E,HWGS will spend more time and give a more thorough answer with more details included.”  And maybe giving a terse, dashed-off answer as soon as you see the question will actually prevent that E,HWGS from ever writing the ideal answer!

But then, a terse, dashed-off answer is a lot better than no answer.  At the moment I’m very high on this site.  I hope a lot of people — even earnest, hard-working senior faculty — will put a shoulder to it, and see what happens.

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