Recently, I had lunch with one of the deans of my alma mater, Northern Arizona University (NAU). We discussed among many subjects, how technology was changing higher education. I was pleased to hear that NAU received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to participate in a pilot program in teaching online courses. The Dean admitted that the higher education club is slow to change since they’ve been doing things the same way for hundreds of years. I was a bit worried when I asked if he heard of the Khan Academy and was met with a “should I know” look. After further explanation and some head nodding, the look went away. (I love the Khan Academy and have spent hours on that site feeding my addiction to learning.)
“It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.”
Clay argues that “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.” I agree. The story of higher education is changing. For hundreds of years, the smartest people would be found at the best schools. Today, that story is changing. Christopher Langan is often billed as “the smartest man in the world”. In the original Esquire article that made him famous he talks about his college experience:
“There I was, paying my own money, taking classes from people who were obviously my intellectual inferiors,” he says. “I just figured, Hey, I need this like a moose needs a hat rack! I could literally teach these people more than they could teach me, and, on top of that, they have no understanding, they don’t want to help me out in the least. To this day, I have no respect for academics. I call them acadummies. So I guess you could say that was the end of my formal education.”
I propose that the best and brightest are most interested in advancing their thinking in a certain field. If the best way to accomplish that is through a computer and an internet connection, why would they spend hundreds of thousand of dollars attending a University. Of course, Mr. Langan is not your typical “smart person” as his story is incredible. However, it’s his story that entered into the mainstream in the latest 90’s and has been advanced by today’s tech heroes.
“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months I couldn’t see the value in it.” – Steve Jobs
These are the heroes of future tech stars. How will the next generation of gifted students view the value of a “college education”? The story has already changed but higher education hasn’t felt it yet.
I’ll end this blog with Clay Shirky’s ending:
“In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.”