The Story of Higher Education: Disruption

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.)

Clay Shirky has written a great piece about how “Higher education is now being disrupted” in ways similar to “music, books, newspapers and TV”.

“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.

Dropping out of college in the tech start-up world is viewed as a badge of honor.  We all know the famous drop-outs of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and of course Mark Zuckerberg.

“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.”



  1. Martha Mallott says

    This is a great article.
    As a college “drop-out” myself, I feel that during my generation of growing up, that higher education was more of a “social standing”.
    We were taught that not attending college would make us inferior to those of our peers who attended college and completed that you would be much less successful.
    As a person still eager to learn, I feel I find it hard to differentiate the importance of college as “required” to be successful.
    I truly believe that society creates their own terms as far as what is considered successful.
    I once heard someone tell a classmate of mine, that their family should be proud because they were one of few who completed their higher ed in our graduating class… It made me feel that perhaps our families shouldn’t be proud of us who didn’t, and I feel that all of my classmates are very successful at doing what they are doing as they are enjoying life, they are happy and they have jobs; regardless of our outcome of our college experience.
    Nor am I implying that college is not a good thing, it is! Especially for those who make the most of it.
    But for those of us who are “drop-outs” and have good jobs and good job training and experience- I don’t think that makes us any less successful.
    As society changes with the times and electronics etc. I still believe that it’s how society thinks and views these changes resulting in these generalizations of education and how our future leaders are being affected by these changes. It’s inevitable and I think if we focus more on the WAY our people learning rather than HOW(or where) it would result for the best of each individual.

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