Some random thoughts on the supposed collapse of the university as we know it

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but as I head into what (I think?) is the end of the Bonk MOOC and after collecting a bunch of links on this, I thought I’d offer some random thoughts on the end of higher education as we know it.

Throw a brick out a window and you’re liable to hit an article like these:

I could go on, but you see the point.  Now to my random thoughts:

  • In a global way, I think Aaron Barlow says a lot of what I would say in this post and this post on his blog One Flew East.  As far as I can tell, education has been in a state of revolution that potentially eliminates the teacher since Socrates and Phaedrus talked about the dangers of literacy.  Books, print, cheap publishing, etc. have been available for learning without teachers or interaction with others for a long time, but as Barlow points out, “Only the rare person is a true autodidact.”
  • The fact that most of us (including me) lack the ability to intensely self-direct our learning (and I for one lack the crazily internal motivations for doing almost anything) is the key in understanding why both Thiel’s foundation and these various no credit MOOCs are basically a waste of time and/or a PR stunt.  Sure, if you hold a national contest attracting the best and brightest young people in the country and offer them $100K to develop those ideas, those folks can probably get away without having a college degree.  Sure, there are people– especially in the IT world– who are more or less self-taught and could be where they are without a college degree.  Sure, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college.  But the fact is most of us aren’t like that, and most of us are not Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or (insert your other anomaly genius name here).  Most of us need something a lot closer to a classroom and degree experience to succeed.
  • Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the popular press was running a bunch of articles about how it turns out that lecture hall discussions were bad and it was the interaction between students and teachers that fostered learning?  Wasn’t the whole “reversed classroom” thing the main topic of discussion just a few months ago?  So why on earth is an online version of a sage on the stage now seen as the solution?
  • Show me anyone writing for mainstream media that college is a waste of time and money and I’ll show you someone– that same writer– who has a college degree, and usually a college degree from a fancy-pants institution.  It’s the same argument I have about the coming revolution in digital scholarship:   I’ll agree that publishing in fixed manuscript form is over as soon as these folks publishing books about digital scholarship and the end of print start getting recognition for their actual digital scholarship and that work alone.  I think the days of printing on paper are numbered, sure.  But words in a row– even when those words in a row are about multimodality or digital rhetoric or what have you– aren’t going anywhere.
  • A few years ago, I did a project on correspondence schools in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a number of years before that and as part of one of the last classes I took in my PhD program, I did some research on elocution and the “home learning” movements of the 19th century.  Classes conducted via the postal service were a particularly big deal in the midwest.  William Rainey Harper, who has a community college named after him in the Chicago area, said in 1885 “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.”  Makes me think I should go back to those scholarly projects.
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