Here, There, and Everywhere

Daniel Asia

Anyone working in the groves of academe knows that things can’t continue as they are. As the sagacious economist Herbert Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The bubble of higher education will burst. It is only a matter of when.

Students are learning less and less. Bureaucratization and the new legalistic mentality are overwhelming the daily functioning of institutions—see any syllabus, which has now become a legal contract rather than a plan of study. It is impossible to do anything quickly and efficiently, with the possible exception of getting new courses devoid of content added to the curriculum. Universities are now “communities” interested in sustainability, diversity (except in intellectual inquiry), exploration of new social possibilities, physical and mental wellness, sexual experimentation, and general indoctrination of a leftist sort. While the educational product and results are getting worse, the cost of “the college experience” is rising exponentially—student debt now tops a trillion dollars. A good chunk of that was, and is, accrued to students who early on dropped out of formal education, so the likelihood of its being paid back is small.

The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, by Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at New America, tries to make sense of this situation and argues that there will be, and already are, alternatives to this bleak scenario.

Carey’s conceit is in his subtitle: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. The digital age has come to the rescue—so adapt or go the way of the dodo bird. We have heard this before in various iterations, and pushed each version aside as yet another doomsday scenario. But my sense is that Carey is correct, and that everyone involved in higher education had better open his eyes and take a good look toward the future. While the digital age is wreaking havoc in numerous ways, such as in our students’ reduced attention spans and inability to focus, it is Carey’s contention that some of these digital instrumentalities can be our salvation as well.

This breezy, approachable book has twelve chapters with titles such as “The Secret of Life,” “Cathedrals,” “Thunder Lizards,” “Less Like a Yacht,” and its last, “Your Children and the University of Everywhere.” Carey charts the history of higher education from its beginnings in Europe to the multiversity in America, and discusses the new for-profits, online programs, MOOCs, and business experiments popping up with regularity. He records the entrance of Silicon Valley and its disruptive ventures into the realm of higher education. Carey posits the “University of Everywhere,” where “educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free. Anything that can be digitized…will be available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection….It won’t…be a single place or institution at all….Traditional college credentials…will fade into memory.” It sounds utopian, and ahealthy skepticism of this vision is warranted. Carey, however, makes the case for his brave new educational world.

In current institutions of higher learning, a large number of students are not learning at all, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa document in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). Carey cites their appalling fact that “45 percent of students made no gains on a widely used test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication skills during their first two years in college. Thirty-six percent made no statistically significant gains over the entire four years.” This does not include the 25 percent or so who drop out during their first two years of college.

Why is this happening? According to Arum and Roksa, students study at a very low rate—approximately five hours per week, whereas just fifteen years ago that figure was fifteen hours, down from forty in the early 1960s. Marry this with grade inflation and you have a perfectly ridiculous situation: Students don’t learn but they get good grades. Students and faculty have plenty of time to pursue their primary interests, which for students means partying, watching sports and Netflix, playing video games, finding themselves, and just having a good time; and for faculty means carrying on with their “research.” It is a win-win in the short term for those involved and, in the long term, a major loss for society, for democracy, and ultimately for the students themselves.

In chapter 2, “Sham, a Bauble, and a Dodge,” Carey summarizes how we arrived at our current state. Education began with the bringing together of learners and those thought to hold a certain amount of wisdom for the exploration and explication of questions of moment. Picture the Hellenic Plato and the Jewish Rabbi Akiva. Teaching was done through oral presentations, persuasion, and rhetoric. This changed with the printing press. While books could still be pricey, they became the sources of information that could be collected into large libraries, repositories of information available to “members,” who paid for access to those materials, and faculty who had mastered, at the very least, bits of it. This changed in the nineteenth century with the creation of the American university, which added three new aspects to what had been a primarily religious education: research, after the German archetype; practical skills, which were needed for workers in the Industrial Age; and a shift in focus from religious studies to the broader realm of the humanities. Moreover, higher education, which had been reserved for the few, was gradually democratized and opened up to the greater population, to the point that college education is now thought of as a right for all.

Carey presents Jacques Barzun’s grand critique of this hybrid comprising “the graduate research university and the undergraduate liberal arts college.” The American hybrid university’s mission is unclear and unfocused, trying to fulfill various goals at once, and not doing a good job of any of them. It hires faculty for their research skills and then expects them to teach, something they have never been prepared to do, so it has, according to Barzun, “left decisions about teaching…in the hands of autonomous academic departments and individual professors who operated from the principle of keeping themselves employed.” According to Carey, “When it comes to teaching, colleges and universities do not want to be more productive, and will do whatever they can to avoid such a fate” (emphasis in original). How they are allowed to do this in our age of increased efficiency in almost all endeavors? The answers are public subsidy, regulation, and credentialization. Some public subsidy is the responsibility of society to educate the young, but when institutions fail to carry out that trust, Carey asserts that the public has a right to turn off the flow of money. The beast will thus be starved into correcting its errant behavior, and in this new world this is already happening with a vengeance.

Carey takes a MOOC offered through EdX, a joint MIT and Harvard enterprise: “The Secret of Life,” a course required of all MIT undergraduates. As background, he mentions the convergence of artificial intelligence and education. The increasing sophistication of AI programs can track a learner’s progress, provide and adjust the manner of the teaching methodology to the particular learner, and then allow students to proceed only when they have mastered the current material. Most learning—particularly in the sciences—is progressive.1

Carey tracks his experience with this course throughout the book. He finds the course, which includes videos of all lectures, well done. Money was not an issue in putting it together, although it typically costs a lot for the staff and equipment to run such classes: two HD cameras to record all lectures, a bevy of IT guys to create and maintain the site, as well as administrators to answer questions and supervise chat rooms, etc. It presupposes, or makes the case for, a master teacher who would put lesser academics out of business, or at least thrust them into a supportive role.

At one point Carey goes to Boston (he lives in Washington, D.C.) to participate in a live lecture. His response to the experience is humorous: “[L]ive and taped lectures really aren’t the same. Live lectures are definitely worse….[T]here’s a lot to be said for the Pause button.” He mentions the distractions that are found in the lecture hall and conversely the superb quality of production of the cameramen. “I much preferred sitting down to watch lectures at a time and place of my choosing, headphones on, notebook in hand.”

If courses can be taken online, decoupled from an institution (anyone, anywhere in the world can sign up for the MIT offering, and for a nominal fee), and one can get a grade for participation, the only remaining issue becomes one of credentialization. Put another way, what does a diploma actually tell us? Carey points out that with the requirement to take a certain number of “hours” of courses, and with grade inflation, what a diploma now represents is not much more than, to use Robert Maynard Hutchins’s phrase, “faithfulness, docility, and memory.” Carey makes a good case for a move to a decentralized system of badges that will inform about what the student actually learned rather than account for time invested.

Carey is onto something big. At the same time, there are hurdles. Aside from the huge dropout rate for online courses, this brave new world is custom-made for the sciences and maybe even the social sciences, but comes up lacking in terms of the arts and humanities, which, after all, teach sense and sensibility. The University of Everywhere also doesn’t address matters pertaining to history or citizenship, the virtues that undergird our democratic society. It does well with matters of data and information acquisition, but will fail in purveying what we quaintly used to call wisdom. It also begs the question of whether virtual community is the same as real community, and whether education is aided by a presentness, a physical association, the near proximity of learners. Students are not just brains, but made of flesh and emotions. Will the University of Everywhere address the whole person? Or maybe Carey is telling us that the University of Everywhere will only purvey matters of information and leave some other bodies and institutions—families, churches and synagogues, community centers, neighborhood gymnasiums—to address everything else, from character formation to hobbies to sports attendance to political affiliation. Given the current state of our institutions of higher education, maybe this isn’t a bad way to go.

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