I've been following a conversation on the Institute for Distributed Creativity's email list that is related to this upcoming Mobility Shifts conference at the New School. To briefly summarize, one argument that is put forward is that higher education has been corrupted, essentially by market forces. Actually that's probably not an argument there, as I don't think anyone on the list would disagree with that statement. The disagreement is whether or not higher education can be saved or should be saved.
Clearly there are those who look at learning that takes place outside institutional settings and the success of some programs (and/or individual learners) that make use of free online academic content, often in situations where education would not otherwise be available. Obviously this is related to the ongoing discussion of badges, which would provide some alternate credentialing for such learning. As Bill Keller's recent NY Times op-ed echoes a familiar observation on this blog: that if we view colleges as the content creators of curriculum, then those institutions face an economic challenge similar to those met by other media industries from music to newspapers. As he notes, this "would be an earthquake for the majority of colleges that depend on tuition income rather than big endowments and research grants. Many could go the way of local newspapers. There would be huge audiences and paychecks for superstar teachers, but dimmer prospects for those who are less charismatic." In other words, something like the TED talk effect.
Keller suggests a fairly dim view of education's future. Smaller colleges, which serve the vast majority of American students, fail. Large research universities grow. Competition shrinks, so they charge even more. Then they send out free material to a DIY market. Of course I think it is fair to say that the DIY market will structurally be second-class to the remaining higher ed market, which will still produce the lawyers, doctors, bankers, researchers, etc. etc. Of course the DIY market will not remain free. Once it gets large enough, a secondary market of corporations that will provide support and credentialing for DIY learners will develop (of course it already exists). It's anyone's guess what kind of professional or ethical obligations such corporations will imagine they have toward their DIY customers.
Bryan Alexader has an interesting piece for EDUCAUSE that imagines learning in 2016. In such pieces I am always attracted to the anecdotes they offer, and this piece begins with such an anecdote. I would be happy learning in the world he describes. My daughter will enter college in 2016, and I could see her learning this way. Of course, she's a gifted student, skipped a grade, had a 99% grade average last year across all her classes, etc. etc. She's a perfect student for a DIY situation or really any classroom situation. I think about our graduate students, especially those who have passed their exams. They are also in a DIY educational space. Of course, a fair number of graduate students end up ABD because they ultimately can't hack the DIY environment. And this is already a fairly select group of students.
The thing I keep coming back to with this DIY thing is the typical first-year composition student. I suppose in a DIY space such students would simply never choose to take a writing course because they don't like writing. And they wouldn't take any general education courses either, because they aren't interested in taking those. They wouldn't take science, and they wouldn't take math. In fact, it's quite difficult for such students to declare any interests that are remotely academic or professional. Of course this is not true of all students, but it is the case for many, many students, particularly the kinds of students who would be shut out of higher education in a DIY world. These students don't fit into Bryan Alexander's anecdote.In my view, what the typical American college student needs more than anything else is to learn how to participate in a learning community. Maybe K12 could provide this, but I'm not holding my breath. And I'm not blaming K12 here because I think this kind of learning might require some maturity. You have to learn this before you can participate in the kind of learning community that Alexander describes. This is what higher education ought to be doing.
I agree that higher education has been corrupted. But I don't think it's the source of the corruption and as such removing these institutions will only mean that this process of corruption will follow education (and it's dollars) wherever they go. Undoubtedly, higher ed needs to reform to figure out how to participate in the digital age (uh… see the last couple hundred posts on this blog for more on that). But right now I can't imagine that kid sitting in the back of the composition classroom taking responsibility for his own education.