Friday, August 21, 2009

College, 2025

In 1966, economists William Bowen (who became president of Princeton) and William Baumol likened colleges to a string quartet in the area of improving efficiency. If you want to perform a proper string quartet, they noted, you can’t cut the cellist nor can you squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster.

But that was then – before MP3s and iPods proved just how freely music could flow. Before Google scanned and digitized 7 million books and Wikipedia users created the world’s largest encyclopedia. Before YouTube Edu and iTunes U made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free, and before college students built Facebook into the world’s largest social network, changing the way we all share information. Suddenly, it is possible to imagine a new model of education using online resources to serve more students, more cheaply than ever before.

The September issue of Fast Company has a fascinating article on this topic entitled “Who Needs Harvard?” Some statistics:
  • College tuition has gone up more than any other good or service since 1990
  • Student loan debt is over $714 billion
  • Once the world’s most educated country, the US today ranks 10th

There is a growing movement toward high-tech do-it-yourself education. Many of the loudest voices of change are coming from within the universities themselves. Professor David Wiley of BYU writes: If universities can’t find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them, they will be irrelevant by 2020.

That catches my attention. In my post yesterday, I talked a little about my education experience and those of my children. But when a prediction is made that universities will be irrelevant by 2020, my attention as a grandfather perks up: my first grandson won’t even be old enough to enter college until 2025. What will it be like for him?

I’m not a fortune teller, but I know that change in higher education is in the air. The Internet disrupts any industry whose core product can be reduced to ones and zeros says Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of education startup Knewton. That’s the foundation of higher education, and change is coming.

From the Fast Company article: The transformation of education may happen faster that we realize. However futuristic it may seem, what we’re living through is an echo of the university’s earliest history. “Universitas” doesn’t mean campus, or class, or a particular body of knowledge; it means the guild, the group of people united in scholarship. The university as we know it was born around AD1100, when communities formed in Bologna, Italy; Oxford, England; and Paris around a scarce, precious information technology: the handwritten book. Illuminated manuscripts of the period show a professor at a podium lecturing from a revered volume while rows of students sit with paper and quill – the same basic format that most classes take 1,000 years later.
Today, we’ve gone from scarcity of knowledge to unimaginable abundance. It’s only natural that these new, rapidly evolving information technologies would convene new communities of scholars, both inside and outside existing institutions. The university of the future can’t be far away.

College 2025? Who knows? One thing I'm pretty sure of: it won't look anything like it does today. And that's probably not an all together bad thing.

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