Thursday, May 17, 2012

The End of College as We Know It (Not)

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, I started blogging about Thomas Friedman's rah-rah piece about how Online. Education. Is about! To Change!!! EVERYTHING!1!!! But I've been slowed down by designing an actual online class, and by various things that tend not to slow Tom Friedman down, such as complexity, plausibility, and actual knowledge of the topic. I don't think online education is a glorious revolution in the making, as Friedman does, and I don't think it's a hopeless case either. I can't tell you the simple, clear story that Friedman can, because I know too much to actually believe one.

But let me say this: when op-ed writers talk about college as we know it being totally transformed into something totally unlike universities as we've known them (and a surprising number of op-ed writers are fond of saying things like that), they don't actually mean what they're saying. They don't even want what they say they want. Traditional college education is not going away, and they don't want it to. What they mean is that they want college education to go away for some people.

Whatever changes in American education, the rich and famous universities are going to adapt, survive, and continue doing basically what they've been doing all along: educating hand-picked crops of promising students in a traditional residential setting, a few thousand at a time. People talk about American education being "broken" or about an "education bubble" about to burst, but the places like Harvard and Stanford and MIT are doing fine. By a lot of standards they're doing better than ever. If this is what "broken" looks like, don't wait up nights for it to get fixed.

And it should be noted that it tends to be these very places, like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, who have recently made high-profile investments in free online education, such as the Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs) that helped get Friedman so worked up about the Great Leap Forward. But you can be sure that Stanford, Harvard, and MIT don't see these big, tuition-free initiatives as any threat to their core enterprise of selective residential education in face-to-face classrooms. You can be sure of that because if they thought these new offerings would kill off their core business, they would not be offering them.  (Confidential to Thomas Friedman: Duh.)

Any big changes in American higher education will leave the big institutions pretty much alone. Nobody's going to make Harvard do anything that's not to its own benefit. When excitable pundits talk about abolishing college as we know it, they mean getting rid of the other colleges. You know, the not-so-elite ones. The ones that almost every college student in America actually goes to.

When people talk about radical changes to American education, they mean scrapping the public universities and some of the modestly-endowed private schools, "reforming" them by offering some less expensive alternative that's good enough for little people. You'll hear many of the same pundits saying that "college shouldn't be for everyone," and that they do mean. They don't want to abolish traditional colleges for themselves, or their children. They just want to abolish it for the rest of us.

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