Academia in the age of Skype

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The American university is in truth a medieval institution reformed along German lines in the 19th century.  At that time, the university replaced the informal “republic of letters” as the arbiter of authority in published works.  The academic self-image resembles that of Beowulf’s dragon:  standing guard over a rare and precious treasure, in this case of knowledge.  Trespassers on the dragon’s cave, who claim authority without accreditation, suffer the intellectual equivalent of being chewed to death.

But the world inside the heads of academics is very unlike the world as it actually exists.  In this latter world, information has multiplied prodigiously, the cost of communication approaches zero, and the amateur is in command.  Today a barbarous public trespasses freely on the temples of authority.  Meanwhile, the cost of higher education over the last three decades has far outstripped inflation:  a peek at the treasure of knowledge has been converted into real treasure by academic institutions, and 37 million of the peekers have been left twitching under a trillion-dollar mountain of student loan debt.

In the ancient bargain between the university and the student, the former asked for ever larger sums of money and four years of life in bondage, while the latter received a diploma.  With the new dispensation, the public demands to know the value – not of an education – certainly not of knowledge – but of accreditation by an established institution of higher learning.

This demand represents the ragged edge of change.  The American university has been strangely uninterested in the technological earthquake rattling the walls of American society.  It prefers medieval modes of research to Big Data, and control of the flow of information by way of peer review to open access and crowdsourcing.  No matter.  The earthquake has now reached the university, and nothing will ever be the same.

The first tremors were felt as far back as 2006, with the arrival of the Khan Academy.  Using low-tech presentations and YouTube videos, and sustained by the deep pockets of Bill Gates, Salman Khan developed a demanding online curriculum, primarily for mathematics, free of charge and accessible from the nearest laptop.  Despite the absence of diplomas or Greek pillars, his approach has achieved a remarkable popularity:  the lessons have been viewed 230 million times by 7 million users globally.  People have many reasons for wanting post-high school education – the Khan Academy has shown that some of these reasons can be satisfied without attending a university.

But the fatal battering of the status quo is likely to come from the massive online open course, or MOOC.  Though still in experimental mode, the MOOC can exploit the power of the star system, recruiting the best-known lecturers in their fields and presenting them to gigantic audiences spread all over the world.  Last fall, an Artificial Intelligence MOOC taught by two well-known Stanford professors enrolled 160,000 students in 190 countries.  Some 200 signed up in Stanford itself, but the number attending the classroom version soon dwindled to around 30, “as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.”  That judgment should terrify anyone making a living in brick-and-mortar academia.

Clay Shirky speculates that the MOOC and the higher-ed startup, Udacity, are to the university what the MP3 and Napster were to the music business:  essentially, model-breakers, destroyers of that comfortable world inside the heads of academics.

. . . the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?

MOOCs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies. [. . .]

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.

If this happens, Harvard will be fine. Yale will be fine, and Stanford, and Swarthmore, and Duke. But Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine. And Kaplan College, a more reliable producer of debt than education? Definitely not fine.

As can be seen, Shirky believes that “elite schools” will be spared the destructive unbundling of the academic business model.  This seems implausible.  Harvard and Stanford will survive, protected by billions in endowment.  But they will be massively disrupted, and their teaching methods will be transformed beyond recognition.

Shirky observed in Here Comes Everybody that when a medium (like recordings, say) allows stars to become widely accessible to the public, mediocrities (the local orchestra and operatic tenor) go out of business.  Today the elite schools hoard the academic stars, but Harvard and Stanford and Swarthmore and Duke fill their staffs with as many mediocrities as does Kaplan College.  They will vanish, hollowing out these universities.  More to the point, in time the stars won’t need to be associated with a prestigious institution of higher learning.  They will convey prestige – and they may choose to sell their services to the richly endowed schools, or they may go with an upstart like Udacity.

It is also possible to envisage a different intellectual climate around higher education.  The universities are bureaucracies of learning.  They produce scholastic turf warriors.  “Original research,” so much insisted upon, is in some measure like modern art:  by prizing newness and possession above insight, it leads to ever more arcane, subjective, and trivial productions.  The online university will sweep away such fevered effusions, and will inspire, as the web always does, the formation of communities around shared interests.  With a minimum of fuss and hierarchy, out of sheer love of the subject, MOOC students of particle physics or the history of the Roman Empire will gather virtually to exchange notes – and star lecturers will emerge from such tightly-woven communities to rival those bred by the bureaucracy of academia.

As invariably happens, students of the online university who have met virtually, as members of a community of interest, will wish to continue the discussion in the flesh.  For this leap into the real world, they won’t need a campus, just an entrepreneur willing to provide the necessary space – a Starbucks on steroids may be the setting for the new School of Athens, and the next generation of scholars.

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