NEW REPUBLIC: Silicon Valley’s “Thunder Lizards” Want to “Hack” America’s Broken Universities

Career College Central Summary:

  • On college campuses across America this spring chipper tour guides will bustle high-school seniors and their parents around all the big sites: the dorms, high-tech classrooms, vast libraries, and the flashy new rec centers, with their now-standard lazy rivers and flat-screen TVs. This is closing season, when colleges try to turn “accepted” students into “deposited” ones—admissions-speak for students who have cut their first check to the university. As I shamble professorially between classes, I catch bits of the sales pitch—our library cafe has “great coffee” and the smoothies at the rec center are “amazing.” Fathers in particular tend to look uneasy on these tours, as if what they’d really like to do is check the plumbing. But parents and children alike mostly seem wide-eyed, a bit anxious, and a little bewildered.
  • No wonder. As Kevin Carey explains in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, American universities are strange machines: massive, specialized research operations welded unevenly to undergraduate training programs and semi-professional sports franchises. The credit-hour system that fuels them is a bizarre relic of the same industrial age thinking that gave us punch clocks and assembly lines. Does it really take exactly 120 semester hours to become proficient in English, Psychology, Computer Science, Math, and Leisure Studies?
  • Carey rightly deplores many gross absurdities of American college today: thousands of boutique classes replicated across the nation, promotion and tenure granted with almost no concern for effective teaching, a generation of students with $1.2 trillion of debt and too few skills. His solution is technology: “The University of Everywhere” will emerge to offer cheap or free classes, skill-based credentials, and unlimited access. He’s surely right that college as we know it is on the cusp of radical change. Just as we no longer need thousands of video rental stores, surely we won’t always use thousands of classrooms, and thousands of professors, to teach essentially the same classes in introductory biology, or algebra, or British Literature.
  • Carey concedes the problems with early Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially the astronomically high dropout rates. But the technology continues to improve, and with MOOCs, the self-styled “disrupters” are just getting started. These “disrupters” are the swashbuckling heroes of Carey’s book, men (and they are almost all men) who see “every inconvenience, inefficiency, and injustice as a problem technology can solve.” Take the diploma, for example, which looks good on a wall—if you’re lucky enough to have a wall instead of a cubicle—but which tells a prospective employer almost nothing about your actual skills. Even a detailed transcript offers no real information about the kinds of assignments or range of reading you did in a given class. Or outside of class: Most of us learn just as much in jobs or internships as we do in four years of college. The Mozilla Foundation, which produces the Firefox web browser, has set out to solve this problem by creating “Open Badges,” digital certificates that can include the course you completed, the skills you learned, a portfolio of your work, and the identity of the institution that issued the credential. Open Badges can be easily displayed on websites, and they have been adopted by institutions ranging from the University of Illinois to Codeschool and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • If the entrepreneurs in Carey’s book are out to solve real problems, they’re also out to make real money. In one of the most memorable chapters, Michael Staton, a partner at a venture capital fund, shows Carey a chart with circles for various global markets: a small, $300 billion circle for enterprise software, a larger, $1.6 trillion circle for media and entertainment, and a huge, $4.6 trillion circle for education. That’s more than the entire United States budget. Carey likes to describe the venture capitalists out for a slice of this pie as Godzilla-like “thunder lizards,” who destroy “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence” only to plant “seeds of a new world to come.”

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