Here at CCAP, we talk a lot about the rising costs of higher education, public vs. for-profit universities, student debt, the potential "higher ed bubble," the declining value of a college degree, etc. But, as I posted on just last week, I think technological innovation and our society's increasingly digital universe is an underemphasized aspect of the coming sea-change many expect to see in higher education. Here's a brief excerpt (although I encourage reading the whole post):
The Internet has already begun to revolutionize the way we think about education, with its ease of use, widespread accessibility, and almost bewildering ability to disperse available information. This has implications for the declining costs of education as well. Entire course lectures from the world's most prestigious universities are already widely available for free on the web through sites like Academic Earth, YouTube EDU, iTunesU, Open Culture, and others, not to mention free periodicals from all over the world, NGOs and the free information they provide, freely accessible daily blogs from some of the most intelligent people on earth, Wikipedia has been shown to be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, on and on and on.Here's Inside Higher Ed's Eric Jansonn's take on it:
An often-cited example of "unbundling" is newspapers: with blogs and other online tools, one no longer needs a printing press or fleet of delivery vehicles to be heard. The newspaper editorial room competes with an army of bloggers and other online media outlets. Craigslist emerges as the marketplace for used household items, local job listings, and community announcements, replacing the advertising function of the traditional print newspaper. The combination is a perfect storm leading to a steady, nationwide stream of newspaper closures.He goes on to note, importantly, that much of education is based on close personal contact with professors and students, and so the elimination of the system we currently have is unlikely for that reason. I think he's on the right track, yet perhaps overlooking two relevant points:
Is liberal education as vulnerable to "unbundling" as newspapers are? Two characteristics suggest it is. First, it too functions under the economics of scarcity: gather some of the best teacher-scholars in various disciplines and seclude them with students in close learning environments on a residential campus. But where scarcity once existed, early signs of plenty are emerging: you can access engaging faculty lectures (with course materials) on Yale's OpenCourseWare site or browse the "how-to" video catalog of new upstarts like Khan Academy or dozens of similar online nonprofit and for-profit alternatives. (See Hassan Masum's recent interview with Salman Khan.) These and similar resources will grow in sophistication and offer alternatives to much general education coursework.
Second, education in general – and especially liberal education – is also primarily an information product. What you get for your money is not a set of real-world, physical goods, but intangible skills and information. So there is every reason to believe that whatever "liberal education" is, "it" can travel over a network. While the resources cited above focus on introductory curriculums, remember that we are in the early days of a digital transformation of academics: 20 years ago, most colleges did not even have reliable networks.
(1) if technology and the market are allowed to freely take the education sector where it ought to go, we can't foresee what kinds of innovations or ideas might nullify this teacher-student interaction issue (maybe schools remain largely communtiy based - no moving away to college - but the learning is done online or otherwise digitally, and interaction is done with friends, families, and colleagues within community...who knows?) and
(2) these issues about technology and education have to be taken in the context of all the other issues currently pressuring the education system for radical change (aforementioned hyperlinks, for example). Pressure on the status quo is coming from all different directions and taking various forms, so we should avoid a narrow lens when thinking about the changes coming for education.
The future of higher education is largley unknown, except that big change is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future. And technology may just be our saving grace.