Say Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It's Game Over for higher education.
Higher education as we know it is a zombie. It's basically dead: it just doesn't know it yet.
Why? The business model sucks.
What is the business model of higher ed? A very expensive and labor-intensive service requires keen reputation management, as well as control of labor.
These are the unspoken directives of higher ed as we know it.
- Maintain a large physical plant: the campus is the place the learning happens, and the customers live on-site.
- Keep top talent under exclusive long-term contract: professors get jobs for life, even though you don't own much of what they produce.
- Accumulate intellectual property: professors' patentable work brings income.
- Accumulate prestige: more intangible cultural capital gets accumulated by building the reputations of faculty.
Belief in the system is paramount. You can deny the value of faculty poets and critics: cancer researchers and engineers, not so much.
What beliefs sustain this system?
- An excellent education requires living on-site or very close by: quality demands proximity.
- Learning requires face-to-face communication, close-quarters socialization, and working in isolation: learning is transmitted by contact, like sound waves.
- The more famous and expert the faculty, the more learning they will cause: learning is osmotic.
In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.
Enter networked computing: the internet, web 2.0, the social web, whatnot. A mix of mediated human social interaction and automated human-computer interaction.
Can learning take place via remotely networked computers?
Basically, it's already been demonstrated.
Yet still there is a kind of mystical belief in colleges and universities as physical plants with housing and on-site instruction, and talent under long-term contract.
That will change. Slowly or rapidly, that will change.
Once the belief is gone, it is Game Over--which means that it is basically Game Over now, and it is just a matter of belief catching up. Consciousness always lags a bit behind perception: it's practically definitional.
So now when you pass a college campus just picture Wile E. Coyote, running in place just past the edge of a cliff, not yet aware that the ground is far, far below--but approaching fast.
--Edward R. O'Neill