Thursday, March 8, 2012

The End of Higher Education


Say Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It's Game Over for higher education. 

Higher education as we know it is a zombie. It's basically dead: it just doesn't know it yet.

Why? The business model sucks.

What is the business model of higher ed? A very expensive and labor-intensive service requires keen reputation management, as well as control of labor. 

These are the unspoken directives of higher ed as we know it.
  • Maintain a large physical plant: the campus is the place the learning happens, and the customers live on-site.
  • Keep top talent under exclusive long-term contract: professors get jobs for life, even though you don't own much of what they produce.
  • Accumulate intellectual property: professors' patentable work brings income.
  • Accumulate prestige: more intangible cultural capital gets accumulated by building the reputations of faculty.
Belief in the system is paramount. You can deny the value of faculty poets and critics: cancer researchers and engineers, not so much.

What beliefs sustain this system? 
  • An excellent education requires living on-site or very close by:  quality demands proximity.
  • Learning requires face-to-face communication, close-quarters socialization, and working in isolation: learning is transmitted by contact, like sound waves.
  • The more famous and expert the faculty, the more learning they will cause: learning is osmotic.
In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.

Enter networked computing: the internet, web 2.0, the social web, whatnot. A mix of mediated human social interaction and automated human-computer interaction.

Can learning take place via remotely networked computers?

Basically, it's already been demonstrated.  

Yet still there is a kind of mystical belief in colleges and universities as physical plants with housing and on-site instruction, and talent under long-term contract. 

That will change. Slowly or rapidly, that will change.

Once the belief is gone, it is Game Over--which means that it is basically Game Over now, and it is just a matter of belief catching up. Consciousness always lags a bit behind perception: it's practically definitional.

So now when you pass a college campus just picture Wile E. Coyote, running in place just past the edge of a cliff, not yet aware that the ground is far, far below--but approaching fast.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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