Higher ed, availability, and purpose.

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Some thoughts on higher education.

Good post here ^ by someone who knows TONS more about economics than I do. lol

The current innovations in higher education are so exciting yet threaten to undermine so much of what makes education valuable.

If we see education merely as the transfer of information, then MOOC’s make sense (the big online courses). But if education is something more — if at its core, a good education is also relational, then we need more innovation to develop ways to utilize the communication revolution to extend ways for teachers to mentor small groups of students regardless of anyone’s geographical location.

I posted this comment to his blog post, and it summarizes my current (but still developing) thoughts:

I can’t help but think that MOOC’s will turn education into a factory product … and haven’t we already tried the industrial model of education (cf: current standardized-testing debacle in K-12 realm).

If “getting an education” means “you need to know this subset of knowledge,” then all of our improved information-transfer technology will make a huge difference. MOOCs and other online delivery systems can excel and bring this to the masses. Rock star lecturers can replace all the mediocre professors in classrooms across the world. I welcome that change.

If “getting an education” means “learning particular, detailed skills,” then distance education is a bust. You learn skills best in mentoring or apprenticeship situations. I wish we had more of this in the American model. Even if people try to replace in-person teaching with videos etc, there’s a breakdown eventually. It’s so hard to set up the kind of real-world practice moments if you aren’t working with someone else who knows more than you do about the skill, and can offer on the spot correction.

If “getting an education” means “learning to think and act in ways that humanize us,” as in the liberal arts education that’s been the backbone of the university experience since ancient times — as you mentioned in your Yale example (where the best conversations happened outside the classroom — then I think the best education will always be located in particular spaces. Perhaps those “spaces” can be online (Google hangouts, Skype sessions, phone calls, etc) but we humans seem to learn best in community, and community does seem richer when its allied to geographical closeness.

I think innovation is necessary, and I want education to be available to many, not the few. But I’m afraid there will always be a qualitative gap between “education face to face” and what can be replicated in an online environment. If employers begin to honor that qualitative difference by punishing online degrees with lower salaries, this will get ugly.


  1. I agree completely. Just from my own personal experience recently though, if we could implement remote apprenticeship (apprenticeship online) we could solve that problem. The beauty of remote relationships is the ability to have a personal one on one relationship with a few hundred people, as opposed to 20 to 30 people. It isn’t perfect in that we can’t spend a lot of face time with each person, but with technology today (email, IM, facetime, skype) we could create a more personal online experience with this type of system.

    I appreciate your view in your comment though. That has to be considered when traveling down the line of logic in the post.


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