Monday, August 13, 2012

The Future Is Now?

Not long ago, I friend of mine who teaches English here at the University of Richmond asked me “is it possible that we are all in the buggy whip business and we don’t even know it?”

In other words, has education changed so quickly and so dramatically that many of us are going to get left behind?  (or, have already been left behind?)

It is easy to dismiss that idea (because we want to dismiss that idea). Of course, the times are changing. Everyone can obviously see in the newspapers, television, and Internet that the world of education is evolving. But there will always be room in this world for the kind of college teaching that you and I do. The core of a college education has not really changed much since I was a freshman in 1966. Some version of that model will surely continue on forever. Surely it is sustainable? Surely?

Or maybe not.

A friend of mine here at Richmond sent me a link to two videos at I only watched the first one (I’m in the middle of preparing to do some teaching today and the second one seems similar). But the first one alone presented a rather unbelievable (but fascinating) vision of the near term future of college education: A lot more people being taught a lot more cheaply (and possible taught a lot better).

I personally don’t think the future will roll out like this (especially not so quickly). I just think the actual learning process is more complex than the one portrayed here. But I have always said “any area of the world where there is both a lot of money and a lot of technology will draw in a lot of smart people who want to invent new ways to do things (and get that money).” So, I believe, there will be change and there will be a lot of it. And it will be soon.

For a number of years now, I have been asking the following question at teaching presentations that I make:   "What would happen at your university if Google announced tomorrow that it had hired the entire faculty from Harvard and it was going to start providing a Harvard-level education for an infinite number of people for a flat $10,000 per year?   And, given the amount of money that would bring in, why wouldn't Google do that?"

The best answer that I ever got to that question of what would happen was:   "The president of our school would break down and cry."
Watch that first video and tell me what you think.


  1. I think that the future is here. Seems to me that the current system is subject to arbitrage. If employers are really after skills, and skills can be acquired for free outside of the traditional classroom, that it's only a matter of time before students circumvent the $100k in tuition bills.

    1. I believe that we are already here too. Educators who see themselves as transmitters of information have already been replaced by various media forms. Only educators who understand and embrace their roles as people developers, even now, truly bring value added.

  2. Their learning model, which separates out content (which is fixed, publicly available, and should be free, they say) from assessment of the learning of that content, is fundamentally flawed. And advances in brain research continue to confirm what good educators already know about the role of motivation, prior knowledge, meaning, problem solving, etc. The kind of learning they are talking about is like learning the new software system available for your computer this week in the Office Suite! But I would call that training and not deep learning. I DO believe big change is afoot in higher education, and I am really fearful that short-sighted people think this is all there is to it! Get the word out, Joe. We have so much more to talk about.

  3. Terry, I think there are two things happening here in parallel which makes the debate tricky. One is the need to educate millions more people. The other is to educate people better. Both of those are desperately needed. Which is more important? That's an interesting question. I think technology gives us a chance to solve some of the first problem. I'm not sure how much technology helps us solve the second problem. At present, I don't think we are doing either one of these very well. Which would be better -- to do an A+ job of educating 10,000 people or a C+ job of educating 1,000,000 people. I can easily say "let's do both" but in truth, with technology, I'm not sure it's not a more achievable goal to educate 1,000,000 at the C+ level. Where should teachers (like me and you) put our resources? Joe

  4. Where is the value in Education?

    * The value provided by faculty will not be in content. Content is freely available.
    * The value provided by faculty will be in coaching. practicing, mentoring and assessing.
    * The value provided by the institution will be in assessment, validation and credentialing.