C&B Notes

Higher Ed Rethinking

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, recently shared his vision of a radically different future for higher education.  We have explored this subject in some detail in a past quarterly letter, and the harsh realities of value received vs. tuition paid by students is evidenced by low and slowing student loan repayment rates.

Educators fail at their first duty, to produce adults who can read and write and speak and listen like adults.  And they fail at their second duty, to help create American citizens who can explain this nation, and the West generally, to their children and themselves.  College graduates must be capable of explaining how society arrived at this particular historical moment.  What were the milestones?  What were the major choices?

It has been clear since the 1980s that U.S. colleges are failing. They spend more every year to finance their growing administrations and pass the bill to students, while indulging their penchant for being sinister and ludicrous at the same time. Over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation, as the higher-education world inevitably flips over and sinks.  Top schools will remain, because they sell a valuable commodity: not education but prestige.

Many colleges do well teaching technical topics like mathematics, engineering, science.  In the first phase of the big sink, local colleges will likely make a pitch for smart students by strengthening their tech sides, throwing out their arts and humanities departments — and offering better online-education options instead. A group of smaller schools might hire some big-name scholars who are good onstage, and produce a shared suite of internet courses in arts and humanities.

Students will need digital guides or mentors who are experts in online education and the rapidly growing range of online offerings.  They would hire such a guide for the duration of an online college education.  Bachelor’s degrees will gradually be replaced by certified transcripts.  A student presents his final transcript to some admired authority with whom he has chatted occasionally throughout his studies. By signing it the big shot says, in effect: You rate a degree in my book…

Face-to-face teaching is incomparably best.  To compensate for its built-in disadvantages, internet teaching must do something new. Freely available software templates ought to make it simple for students to get a quick overview of the whole course and to navigate through the course however they like.

Students should be able to stop at any point to ask a question, or to join a running conversation among students around the world who are taking the same course.  Students ask questions in writing.  A written answer comes back, and question and answer become part of the online “course commentary.”  Thus the course grows better and deeper each time someone ventures through it.  Popular courses will have someone on call, too, to answer phoned-in questions around the clock. Wherever they live, English-speaking teaching assistants contribute an hour or two when they have the time.

When the course is done, it folds up into a neat little square on your desktop or in a file system, as a reference forever.  It becomes a “valuable digital object.”  Such objects don’t exist now, but they will be the basis of lots of interesting things — such as sustainable digital publishing, and an actual market in digital art — once they have been standardized. Federal agencies that have led major tech projects in the past would do well here, too.

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