Obviously, I've been thinking about education for a long time, and have been involved with online professional education for almost 5 years now. The particular event that has crystallized my current thread relates to the Stanford prof who has left to get involved in teaching online classes with Udacity, as well as MIT's announcement of its planned MITx project.
But the main issue I'm thinking about is: why is university education, whether undergrad or graduate level, structured the way it is? Why is it so costly in time and money? And does everybody need to spend the same amount of time and money to get value? Heck, aren't there activities at the universities that provide little value whatsoever, and should just be dumped?
Now I'm going to jump to a different thought - something else I've been doing (or, rather, not doing) for 5 years. That is, not having cable TV. Cable TV is offered in various set packages, and it all involves paying for ESPN somehow. We have no interest in sports. So when we moved in 2007, all we got was cable internet for the house, and that was it. Stu bought an Apple TV, bought his favorite shows on iTunes, and I've just been watching Hulu, YouTube, my DVDs, etc. etc. since then. I've only had to pay for what I wanted.
Likewise, if one goes to college, one has to pay for a bunch of crap that has little to do with being educated. Student fees going to pay for the gym... what if I don't use the gym? Student fees to pay for other people's clubs -- remind me why I should be funding other people's hobbies? All sorts of bureaucratic barnacles amassing themselves in peripheral activities, bloating the costs of a university education and precious little actually related to that education. And the while the cost of the education has been skyrocketing, the value of it in terms of career hasn't kept pace.
There are two separate pieces to college value -- providing education and providing credentialing (not the same thing) -- that are being undermined by technological developments.
The providing education piece is easy to see. Online information and education has been around as long as the internet, and the amount online has grown immensely in quantity and quality. Some may complain that there's little interaction or feedback between student & teacher in the online world, but that's silly. For one, so much of regular college education still takes the form of lectures, where precious little interaction goes on. These are just fine ways of imparting info -- after all, I listen to about 15 hours of lectures per week, just from my commute.
But what if I have questions? Well, I have been known to email the lecturer directly -- I'm not necessarily expecting an answer, but I have had gotten some back. But even more likely, I just go online to see if I can find the answer elsewhere, or I go to a forum where I think people are interested in the subject, and then ask about it. I've used that last technique a lot.
But what about homework? Essays? Checking that you actually learned the material?
That's a separate bit -- the credentialing. I know lots of literature and history, but I'm not particularly interested in "proving" I know this stuff with a piece of paper. Obviously, I can converse about this stuff and am knowledgeable, but I'm not trying to get a job in those fields.
However, I do want to prove to you that I know actuarial stuff. So how do I do that? Nope, not a degree in actuarial science -- my degrees are in math and physics. I have a professional credential I attained through a series of exams. CPAs, CFAs, those with the various trading exams (Series 7, etc.), and all sorts of professionals already have non-college-based credentials that have existed for years before the internet.
Indeed, lawyers used to not be required to have any particular degrees -- they just had to pass the bar. Many people will tell you that a lot of law school has little to do with actual law practice and more with academic stuff that one won't use unless one is a law prof. Whee.
But back to the point -- if the point of college education is essentially a credential to be marked as qualified for a specific field of work, I imagine there are cheaper ways to verify one has the requisite knowledge and abilities in this day and age. Various groups are attempting to do this in a variety of ways. Straighterline is one, where one can pay by course, or do package deals, to take standard courses and get credits that are transferable to other institutions (these are generic courses, so nothing for majors, but it can knock off a couple years from a 4-year degree given how many "general" requirements one has for a BS or BA). These are online courses, but it's self-paced, so you can finish as quickly or as slowly as desired.
There's already the CLEP exams, which cuts out the "class" part entirely, and basically gives a final exam (AP is somewhat similar). Indeed, I came into NCSU with 30+ credit hours due to AP exams myself, and I picked up about 9 more credits by either doing the "credit by final exam" (that was Intro Stats, I just talked to the dean of the dept and showed him the student handbook. I just sat the final with a regular class. I got a 96.) or by just directly cutting a deal with the department (that was Calc III and the Proofs class - in the first case, I talked with the dept about getting credit, in the second case, I was kicked out of the class and then talked to the dept about it.)
Still, the options are growing, and the "traditional package deal with ESPN" is eroding as the price has gotten too high for many people.
But, more to the point, it becomes clearer and clearer that having a college degree barely means anything to begin with. It doesn't indicate you actually know anything useful, and it barely has any connection to what many people ultimately do. There's precious little evidence that it teaches people how to learn or think any more than they already knew before coming into college and the natural progression of maturing.
In any case, it doesn't matter what my opinion is. Or even what the opinion of those running the colleges is. While inefficiencies in markets (especially in education) can persist for quite a long time, you can also have things crystallize all at once. And adjuncts? You may get a better deal by teaching directly if you teach a subject people really want to know. (Come join me....)
Below are just a bunch of things I read while putting the above together.
Get college skin in the game:
state of education:
disrupted higher ed system
future of online universities
has higher ed revolution begun?
applying gainful employment to non-profits
thoughts on education reform:
value of different subject majors:
ADDL: proposal for college to take a cut of income (as opposed to fixed tuition)
shop is not a four-letter word [well, it =is=...]