2020 – Varsity’s end?

Paul Raven @ 23-04-2009

empty university lecture hallUnless 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.

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3 Responses to “2020 – Varsity’s end?”

  1. SMD says:

    I have to call B.S. on this. I don’t think one can at all say that true universities aren’t offering something that can’t be had elsewhere. While all that information is available, it’s not provided in a forum where people who have spent much of their lives studying the material can chime in and actually provide perspectives and clarification. The Internet is great for information, but the Internet is also a lovely place for all the idiots and uneducated morons to roam around babbling about stuff they think they know when they clearly don’t–YouTube being a prime example of what the Internet has done for the illiterate. The level of misinformation provided outside of the university environment is astronomical. While misinformation certainly occurs within the university, it’s not at the same scale and there are other perspectives often offered.

    I’m not saying Unis are perfect, but I think this guy’s assessment should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly because of where he is teaching. I wouldn’t trust the LDS with anything considering their recent track record in the states.

    But this is based on my experience at a U.S. university. I don’t know what Unis are like elsewhere in the world (you mentioned there are too many graduates in the UK and that there might be a shift to more apprenticing, which would still be drastically different from what is being proposed).

    And I hate to have to be the guy to say this, but the University of Phoenix is to real U.S. universities what vanity presses are to traditional publishing. That’s the truth. Places like U of Phoenix have turned something that should be more than a commodity into something you can just buy whenever you want to. There are no standards beyond passing. Anybody can do it, and that’s the problem I have, because it offers a false hope for people who think “hey, if I go here I’ll get a good education and end up with an amazing awesome job,” when in reality, that’s far from the truth. ITT Tech, for example, has a terrible track record with placing people in decent paying jobs in the U.S., even though their commercials paint a very rosy picture. I worked with a lot of ITT Tech graduates and they were making only a few dollars over minimum wage, even though they had gone to two years of expensive “tech” school. None of them were working in fields they had trained for and none of them could get jobs that would pay them more, because the degree was essentially worthless.

    This is my rant on commodity education for the day…

  2. Ruth Howard says:

    Yes! Wiley’s totally onto it. If you’re a new teacher like myself,learning to blog and to use social media tools you can really see it. I think possibly because I’m not entrenched in education yet it may be easier for me to observe?

    I’m excited by the understanding that low cost user friendly course ware will soon become freely available so that anyone can construct a course with online delivery. The tribe will choose whom is worth learning from. Word of mouth will prevail. This inherently points to the idea that whomever has the most students rises to the top as a credible source. Its particularly exciting because its unpredictable, authentic, transparent and I’m hoping democratises learning. What interests me about the current crisis in education is the natural shift to learning and human centred rather than didactic mechanistic models. This new model of online learning encourages independent learners who are self directed collaborating globally on real issues, we need the solutions! I also love the idea of opening up the classroom to different age groups learning together.

    I am cautious in this collaborative domain however about centralised control of the web, which could really undermine this learning revolution.

  3. Tony says:

    I cannot speak for experiences in the States, but I do work in HE in the UK. All I can say, is ‘bring it on’, as I am convinced that the current state of University teaching (at least in the UK) is next to useless. Some thoughts;

    Why do universities have three terms?
    Why do people have to start a degree programme at just one time in the year?
    Why are so many courses based on the prejudices of individual lecturers rather than what may help the student get a job?
    The government here has its fingers so completely entwined with the education systems that it is totally politicized
    Students exit with (next to worthless) degrees and with huge debts
    HE is in need of a major shakeup – it is *not* addressing the needs of the students, and I look forward to the first few universities going out of business.