In case any of Mister Gates’ lawyers are reading this, the above headline is a deliberately overstated paraphrasing (it’s how we write on the intertubes, y’know). But the nugget of truth is there: Ol’ Bill spoke at the Technonomy conference last week, and suggested that in another five years or so, more people will be studying online than in universities and colleges [via SlashDot].
I presume he means colleges and universities in the US, though I’d suggest that “first world” nations like the US and the UK will actually have the slowest rate of take-up for online study, as university attendance has the weight and kudos of long tradition to prop it up. But as distrust of the higher and further education systems grows, and more and more new graduates come to realise they’ve put themselves deep into the debt hole for a piece of paper that makes little or no difference to their employment prospects, a shift to what we might call “entrepreneurial learning” is pretty inevitable. Take me as an example: I build websites for a living, but have never had so much as a minute of formal tuition or education in the field; I just googled my way into it, found out what I needed to know as I needed to know it.
But the more important factor here is motivation: as the cost of formal education soars, people will think more carefully about why they’re studying. A degree is much less a means to an end than it used to be, and much as I’ve repeatedly considered doing a degree by distance learning, it’s for the satisfaction of the accomplishment rather than any illusion that my employability would be significantly enhanced. Hence “entrepreneurial learning”: skills and conceptual frameworks acquired with purpose in response to direct needs, rather than abstract knowledge sets accumulated toward a set of targets that may well have no equivalent in the employment marketplace.
The bad side to this, of course, is the lack of clear metrics for employers as to what a potential employee knows. But from anecdotal evidence that’s as least as old as I am, that’s been a problem with the existing system for some time. Perhaps we’ll see a return to competency testing in job interviews? The rise of a sort of zaibatsu-apprenticeship system? A greater percentage of freelance workers in a greater range of industries?