The crash and burn of tradtional academia
- We may have preferences. We may find objections. We may pick at faults and
But nonetheless, for better or worse, one thing remains certain and that is
the overdue and inevitable impact of technology on academia.
Due to technological innovations, businesses like brick-and-mortar retail
stores to institutions like the U.S. Post Office, are going bankrupt and we
see crash and burn everywhere, collapse and lost jobs. But we also see major
changes in how we do business, communicate, network with friends and
For the most part, academia has been resistant to change. At the same time,
formal education continues to cost more money while delivering less value.
Peter Thiel has identified this as the "education bubble" similar to the
previous "housing bubble".
"You know, we've looked at the math on this, and I estimate that 70 to 80
percent of the colleges in the U.S. are not generating a positive return on
investment. Even at the top universities, it may be positive in some sense -
but the counterfactual question is, how well would their students have done
had they not gone to college?" 
In the dystopian view of things, we will have professors dazed and confused
wandering abandoned and desolate university lecture halls mumbling to
themselves, ".but.but what happened to my job?"
I have been researching this for years. For years I have been visiting
classrooms, observing teachers, talking to students. You probably know the
same thing I know. About 90% of what most teachers in higher education are
doing in their classroom could be replaced by a website or video. Only about
10% needs to be done by a teacher.
So I think some of us need to focus on that 10% and even expand on it. I
think teachers need to find new ways to get involved with their students. We
need more activities to do with students. We need to get better at designing
better activities and learn how to get students really busy with
communication from the moment they walk in until they walk out and beyond.
We need to specialize in the very specific areas that the technology cannot
Others of us may want to get involved in designing these new courses. I
don't mean writing code. But today there is a big need to figure out how to
get past just copying a boring book on to a website to make boring
courseware. How can we draw students into a course? How can we interest
them? How can we show them the relevancy of what they will learn? How can we
test and accredit it? Teachers have a very good idea of what students know,
don't know, can and should learn next, etc. and how to stimulate that
learning process. How can we use behavioral economics? How can we use
Gamification? How can we use motivation theory?
These are the directions our self-development should take to improve our
skills as teachers and as better teachers.
 The higher-education bubble - More on Peter Thiel
- Except that the point to school isn't to learn, it's to stay in the system
longer than the people you're in job competition with (get a BS instead of
just doing high school, get a master's degree instead of a BS, etc.).
Certainly the thirty credit hours plus of gen ed lectures to rooms of 500+
undergraduates could be done via video, and it's not like the professors
teaching those classes write a unique set of (multiple choice!) exams every
term, or that those tests are particularly well written, so there's no
reason an organization like ETS couldn't handle the testing end (assuming
you believe gen eds are actually about education, and not about fundraising
or encouraging 18 year old kids with no idea what they want to study to
come to school NOW and pick their major LATER). I think teaching Chinese
adults who need ESL for work, Chinese teenagers and adults who want to
study abroad, etc. makes it easy to forget just how many students are only
in classes for the credentials they expect to receive. As long as the
credentials from an online class/degree are valued less than those in a
classroom, we'll only see them take on a supplementary role. Some possible
examples of that might be:
1) Undergraduate students taking online versions of gen ed requirements
(e.g., college algebra for a history major) to 'get them out of the way'
2) High school students who can't yet enroll in university classes but want
to start accruing university credit hours, perhaps through a
school-sanctioned dual enrollment program
3) Adults in the workplace pursuing tech or language skills, or advanced
degrees/certificates/licenses, that will either improve their ability to do
their job (e.g., Spanish for nurses in the US) or trigger a guaranteed pay
raise (e.g., a tenured high school teacher in the US getting a master's in
education while teaching 5 days a week)
4) Anyone holding down one full-time job while trying to acquire new
credentials to get a second, better paying, full-time job
So your test bed for computer-based university alternatives, as I see it,
are students who do or will go to university anyway, or students who can't
due to time or money constraints. Bear in mind, the technology DOES NOT
MATTER for teacherless instruction in the absence of a credentialization
process. Books have been around longer than universities. Certainly, anyone
could have read the textbooks for a set of classes leading to a degree,
acquired relevant practical experience through internships, work,
home-rigged basement labs, etc. and acquire all the skills and knowledge of
those who finished a degree-awarding program. Perhaps more skills and
knowledge. But how would a self-taught chemical engineer with
skills/knowledge equal to or surpassing the typical holder of an
undergraduate degree in chemical engineering obtain equivalent credentials?
Or without credentials, how would he seek employment in that field?
The whole point to schools being expensive is not that graduates learn
more, or invest more in anticipation of high financial returns. It's to
keep people out, because the degree does less to improve the graduate than
it does to set him into a different, more hireable category of job
applicants. Democratizing or even streamlining higher education via
technology removes much of the value of an undergraduate education for many
undergraduates, who only want the degree because there's many people just
as talented and intelligent as they are who will never have an
undergraduate degree (or many people less intelligent and less talented who
But obviously--if cynically--the point isn't to know things people learn in
school. It's to be able to identify oneself as having attended school...
unlike all those other guys.
The place where the computer revolution could help change the way students
are taught and tested is by offering a real-world example of hiring
practices that did not involve someone in an HR office throwing away every
resume that didn't include a degree and proceeding from there. Whatever the
situation is now, there have been times within living memory where there
simply weren't enough people with computer skills AND a degree in computer
science to meet demand. How did companies wanting to hire a computer
specialist--a sysadmin, network admin, programmer even--identify skilled
applicants without the crutch of 'oh, he has a degree in that field, hire
him'? Or how can the certificate exams used to assess proficiency in new
technologies be emulated in other fields, especially in the less
straightforward case of the humanities?