As we think about the future of education, we need to sharpen our understanding of what education is and what educators do. Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error.
Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.
But the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality. And so, I am afraid, we will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.
I am just catching up with the mess at the University of Virginia. For those who haven’t heard, good summaries and commentaries can be found here, here, and here. The short story: the University’s Board of Visitors fired the University President, Teresa Sullivan, after just two years in office. A string of emails between the Board and Sullivan reveal that she was under pressure to dismantle disciplines that “couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.”
The conflation of academic value and financial solvency is deeply troubling, especially at such a wealthy institution (UVA’s $5 billion endowment is the largest of any public university in the United States). Humanities programs rarely sustain themselves financially. They always rely upon other, more profitable disciplines to survive. Moreover, the humanities have historically been regarded as instrinsically valuable. They do not need to meet any other conditions or criteria to justify their existence. Without them, you no longer have a university.
MIT recently introduced plans for a significant expansion of their distance/virtual education program. From the press release:
MITx will endeavor to break down barriers to education in two ways. First, it will offer the online teaching of MIT courses to people around the world and the opportunity for able learners to gain certification of mastery of MIT material. Second, it will make freely available to educational institutions everywhere the open-source software infrastructure on which MITx is based.
It will be exciting to see how other institutions engage this resource and how a free, open-access approach to online education influences the for-profit models that dominate the market.