A recent article in Fast Company got me thinking about how higher education works.  The article, “How Web-Savvy Edupunks are Transforming American Higher Education”  looks at the various initiatives to move education away from the traditional campus and credits model to something more open and in keeping with the web.

At first, this is a massively tempting idea.  I have certainly spent the summer bringing myself up to speed for a new course I’m teaching by listening to podcasts of classes from Berkeley and MIT, and consider these types of resources invaluable for an adult who wants to fill out their knowledge on a topic or learn something new.  Yet we get a great deal more from college than just topic knowledge. 

I see a few problems with this model that the article fails to address:

  •  We produce an awful lot of ill-prepared high school graduates in this country.  Almost 42 percent of  freshmen enrolled in public 2-year colleges and 20 percent of those enrolled in public 4 year colleges were enrolled in at least one developmental course (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004).  These students will be unable to read and learn from this type of material without a person to go to, and may not be able to complete the work at all without being pushed to complete the developmental coursework.
  • Many of these same struggling students are first generation college students who lack the cultural capital to understand the process.  For better or worse, the structure of a traditional school helps ensure that those students find their way through the process.  Even though there are holes in how the system works now, leaving students to find their own way will only make that worse.
  • Students get a lot more from college than just topic knowledge.  Even if we treat it as some form of white-collar trade school, students learn teamwork and presentation skills, make contacts within their field, and build valuable social skills in the college process.  I have serious doubts about how well an online school can teach those things.    
  • Colleges serve many purposes outside of teaching undergraduates.  Some are extraneous, while others are irreplaceable.  Where will basic research be done?  The kind of stuff for which there isn’t a market yet, but which the engineers and scientists will need to know to build the next generation of technology?  How and where will we train future PhD’s, either to do research or to teach?  Why would someone WANT to go down that path when their work has been devalued.  (Note: I have a real problem with the ancient apprentice / indentured servant model of doctoral education we have now, but I don’t see an improvement here; more like extinction.)
  • One of the things that colleges do is force students to think about other perspectives.  This in part comes from the fact that many academics have perspectives that bare little resemblance to those held by the general public, and can be abused the way some push ideology, but is none the less an important part of school.  The same goes for taking subjects that may not appear immediately interesting.  No one would take my statistics class if they weren’t required to, yet many tell me later that it is one of the most broadly useful classes they have taken. 
  • The past 50 years has seen credential creep; where you used to be able to support a family with a high school diploma, you now need a bachelor’s degree to get in the door and a master’s to get promoted.  Will this be the antidote, showing that knowledge and credentials are only loosely correlated?  Or will this make it worse by further devaluing degrees until the checker at Walmart needs a degree in Finance to get the job?
  • Moreover how do we differentiate the person who listened to the Berkeley podcasts from the person who went to class, wrote the papers and took the tests?  I suppose one could ask if we need to, but few employers are willing to “take your word for it” rather than call your references.  A degree serves a similar function; it is an external stamp that you stuck it out, did the work adequately (although adequate changes from school to school), have at least some knowledge of the topic, can follow rules and can deal with the culture of a bureaucratic organization.

I agree with the article that something needs to change about how we do higher education, but this model seems primarily suited to turn it into a white-collar trade school, focused at the (albeit much larger) undergraduate level and suited principally to self-motivated students with sufficient cultural capital to navigate the process in a meaningful way.  That may be good for some students, but is unlikely to work for all, and genuinely harmful to some.