The impending surge for the University of Everywhere

For as long as I’ve been working in the higher education policy world, people have been talking about the prospects for a breakout for distance learning (i.e., online courses) and how that would transform higher education. Although there have been many offerings and initiatives, both by existing universities and new platforms, so far there has been no dramatic change.

Yes, enrollment numbers have begun to decline and a tiny number of schools have had to close or merge, but at this point, college officials and faculty might conclude that the feared revolution is merely a hobgoblin.

No—it’s real and the U.S. (make that the world) is on the brink of the greatest educational change since Gutenberg invented printing. That is the argument Kevin Carey presents in his new book The End of College. Rapid improvements in information technology are already giving students far better learning opportunities than they’d get in the vast majority of “real” courses, and at almost no cost. 

Carey calls this fast-emerging educational landscape the University of Everywhere. Once people discover that the high cost college degree—which doesn’t necessarily betoken any level of knowledge or skill—is no longer obligatory, many colleges will find their enrollments plunging. Those that survive will offer solid education at reasonable cost. Higher education as we’ve known it, organized mainly for the benefit of the purveyors of education, will give way to new modes of teaching and assessment based on the needs of learners.

Carey sums up the weakness of the typical American college this way, “Students are left to the whims of professors who haven’t been trained to teach and aren’t accountable for helping students learn….Colleges give 19-year-olds too many reasons to have fun and not enough reasons to study consistently and thoughtfully.”

Quite so, but why does Carey believe that online courses are such a great improvement? Because he took one. Not just any course, but MIT’s introductory biology course, The Secret of Life, taught by Professor Eric Lander, who can put at the head of his list of accomplishments having led the Human Genome Project. To take this course, all Carey had to do was to sign-up online, then start watching the videos. (He could also read Professor Lander’s text, which he largely did.)

Carey found Lander to be a superb, engaging teacher. But didn’t he wish he were in the classroom in person? That’s really best, isn’t it? Absolutely not, Carey responds. Watching (and reading) without the distractions of other students, perhaps having to sit in the back of a big lecture hall where it would be hard to see and hear, and having the inestimable convenience of being able to pause and rewind makes online learning far better.

Moreover, after each class, there was a problem set to test the student’s comprehension. Working through those sets was very hard (Carey admits that his recollection of chemistry was nowhere near to the level recommended for the course), but when he made a mistake, he found out immediately and could review the material. In the end, Carey earned a “B” in the course. That got him a certificate, but more importantly, also a digital record of his learning accomplishments.

MIT isn’t alone in making high quality educational offerings available for free or at very low cost. It’s bursting out of Silicon Valley and many other places. Carey discusses quite a few (Udacity, Coursera, the Minerva Project, and others) and it’s a safe bet that since the book was written, new competitors have begun.

Online technology, Carey emphasizes, makes learning better, but not easier. “Students working in personalized learning environments will experience less of the frustration that comes from incompetent, homogeneous educational design. But they will also have fewer opportunities to float along a river of mediocrity and low expectations.”

To that, I would add, “while running up huge debts or hollowing out your family’s wealth.”

One implication of the rise of the University of Everywhere seems to be that in the future, students who are serious about learning and demonstrating their capabilities will stop enrolling in the typical college or university. Those institutions have developed great expertise in hauling in money but remarkably little expertise in teaching and assessing student outcomes.

Serious students will migrate into the U of E, leaving brick and mortar colleges increasingly with those “just float along” students. But there are a great many of them, due to the low standards and entitlement mentality prevailing in our K-12 system, so it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden bursting of the bubble disaster regarding enrollment numbers.

Inevitably, though, demand for the old fashioned BA degree will erode and in time having obtained that credential will actually become something of a stigma. With sharp, ambitious young people presenting prospective employers with badges and certificates (for example, Carnegie Mellon’s computer science sequence, with a badge attesting to the student’s mastery of each of the seven phases), individuals with only a generic degree will encounter this thought (or maybe even expression), “Why nothing better?”

Carey doesn’t say that colleges will become a thing of the past, but that the survivors will be those paying far more attention to student learning. One such school he points to is the University of Minnesota-Rochester, which gives its students a no-frills, no-nonsense, affordable education for a medical career. (For more on UMR, see my Forbes piece about it.) Educationally focused institutions will thrive, while “beer and circus” schools flounder.

The U of E is a wonderful, spontaneous order kind of development. It gives learners—of all ages and places—the benefit of the free market’s discovery process, as the search for new and better methods of delivering education bypasses the plodding educational establishment.

Think of it this way. In the Soviet Union, shoppers had to wait in long lines to buy expensive, often bad quality government-approved goods in a few government stores. That system suited the rulers but was lousy for the shoppers. Suppose that, miraculously, an American mall appeared, offering a fabulous variety of high-quality, affordable merchandise. How long would it take for a trickle of people to get out of line and see what was available in this new kind of shopping? And once some of those who did so report back that the mall is vastly better, how long before there is a stampede?

The End of College provokes lots of speculation about the future.

Here’s one happy thought: there will be few if any jobs for the legions of people who have attached themselves like lampreys to colleges and universities, soaking up money but providing no valuable services. The U of E won’t need any vice-chancellors for diversity and inclusion.

Here’s another: what if the U of E extends to early education? The same revolution that’s going on in higher education is also at work on the basics. Many young students could progress much more rapidly through their educations and get into advanced studies sooner if they had the benefit of great online materials and problem sets.

Some already are. One of the most amazing bits of information Carey includes is the story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 15-year-old student in Mongolia. What that young fellow did was nothing less than to achieve a perfect score on another of those MIT courses, its very demanding introductory course on electrical engineering. He had been able to accomplish that because his teacher had “imported” the class materials into his teaching in Mongolia.

The University of Everywhere could become the School of Everywhere, with learners of all ages progressing as swiftly as they want to, no longer constrained by age groupings, geography, poor teachers, accreditation, credit transferability and similar barriers we have long had to endure.

Lastly, here’s a less happy implication, at least for those of us who work in educational think tanks. The more rapidly the U of E advances, the sooner our jobs become obsolete. Think tanks aren’t needed where markets work efficiently and nearly all of the consumers are content. Are there any think tanks for the dry cleaning market or the piano lessons market?

Read the book and see what hopes or fears it inspires in you.