Unless they start to adapt quickly, colleges and universities could become irrelevant in little more than a decade. So claims Professor David Wiley, at any rate, using arguments that should be familiar to die-hard internet denizens and futurists:
America’s colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer — access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential — can’t be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven’t been innovative, he says, because they’ve been a monopoly.
But Google, Facebook, free online access to university lectures, after-hours institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and virtual institutions such as Western Governors University have changed that. Many of today’s students, he says, aren’t satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour.
Higher education doesn’t reflect the life that students are living, he says. In that life, information is available on demand, files are shared, and the world is mobile and connected. Today’s colleges, on the other hand, are typically “tethered, isolated, generic, and closed,” he says.
It’s the “open everything” argument, of course, but it’s given a certain extra weight in this instance because Wiley lectures at Brigham Young University, a small private university owned by the Mormon church; if they can see the writing on the wall and admit to it, then change is definitely afoot (although Wiley makes the point that establishments like Brigham Young offer “a religious education and the chance to meet and marry an LDS Church member”, which is effectively a kind of social network attraction, albeit a non-technological one). [via Technovelgy; image by Shaylor]
I’d go a few steps further, though. Wiley suggests that “universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you’d have to be a paying customer.” I’m not sure how things stand in the US, but here in the UK we have a saturation of graduates with qualifications that are either oversupplied or effectively irrelevant to obtaining a job (in parallel with a decline in the number of science and engineering graduates); as further education has become much more expensive (as a result of the government’s efforts to make it available to all, ironically) its final product has become devalued. What most employers want now is experience and demonstrable ability – two things that a diploma does not guarantee in any way.
So perhaps we’ll see a return to something like the old guild apprenticeship system, wherein people work for a company at the same time as they take an assortment of modular courses with direct relevance to the job in question, moving up the ranks as they gain – and demonstrate – the specialist knowledge and skills required, at the pace which best suits them. There’d be nothing to prevent someone learning beyond their discipline if they so chose, or spending a lifetime in pursuit of academic achievement.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m put in mind of “Phaedrus’s university” as described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (yes, I do have a hippie streak, as if you hadn’t guessed), the most important component of which is the way it decouples education from coercion, obligation and standardised achievement metrics. Pirsig’s ideas were considered pretty radical in their time, and largely dismissed as unworkable; in the light of the ever-growing ubiquity of the web and free content, maybe it’s time to take another look.