I would send my daughter to the University of everywhere



Teacher, education writer, and fellow SUNY alum Robert Pondiscio has written a generous critique of my book, The End of College. Of my arguments that modern colleges and universities are “operating on a deeply flawed and increasingly unsupportable model,” he grants that “I’m sure this is true, and worse.”

Yet now that his daughter has reached college age, he is “following a well-worn path trod by countless other parents and high school juniors touring prospective colleges up and down the East Coast.” Why? Because he wants her to experience “the relationship with an institution; the enduring friendships and alumni connections; the intellectual, cultural and social serendipity, even the messy bits, that are part of college life”–all things that he missed out on as a successful non-traditional student. He is skeptical that “any other than truly marginal colleges will be replaced by Udacity, massive open online courses and open badges.” First-generation college goers from low-income families, he notes, “seem to do best at colleges that work closely with them and cohorts of similar students to keep them attached and persisting.”

I actually agree with all of this. So much so that I wrote it about in my book.

Most of The End of College takes place in the past and present, telling the story of how American colleges became what they are and how advances in information technology are creating the possibility for them to become something new. In the last two chapters, I try to give some sense of what that something new might be. I do believe there’s great potential for learning online, particularly as the nature of human-computer interaction improves to the point where “online” will mean something very different than it does today. As Pondiscio himself notes, most students today are non-traditional, which is why many already learn this way. However, the book also says:

The future of higher education is not one in which everyone sits by herself in her pajamas, pallid and goggle-eyed, being taught by a machine. Indeed, many people–particularly those we now think of as “college-age”–will live and learn together under the auspices of organizations specifically and solely dedicated to their learning

…the University of Everywhere will include tens of thousands of new higher-education organizations–they won’t be colleges in the traditional definitions of the term–that are physically located in places but have few attributes in common with the traditional hybrid university.

Everyone lives somewhere, and most people live near many other people. Certain kinds of master/student and peer relationships form most naturally and strongly in physical proximity. Most parents will still want to kick their children out of the house when they’re grown, and most children will gladly go. So there will always be organizations dedicated to higher learning where people live and learn together. But those organizations will not look much like colleges and universities as we know them today.

…When all the books in the world and a wide array of digital learning environments can be accessed at very low cost from anywhere, people will be free to organize higher-education institutions in ways that much more sense in terms of cost, size, and the focus of human activity. Great colleges won’t have to be scarce and expensive anymore. They will be everywhere.

Imagine a small group of buildings or spaces run by people with a particular educational philosophy and open to anyone who’s interested in learning. The educators there are focused on mentoring students and helping them form relationships with one another. There are places for people to work person-to-person, or to engage electronically with peers in other cities, states, and countries. Some of the students live nearby and spend hours there every day, learning full-time. Other come in from their families and homes.

…a typical student might be taking one course along with a half million other people around the world and another with three peers and a mentor in the local community. Because it doesn’t cost very much money to start such a place, there are dozens of similar organizations nearby. Some may specialize in a particular subject area, offering a few extended educational programs. Others may be organized around different ideas, faiths, occupations, and philosophies of learning.

… Private businesses might create these new learning organizations, or governments, or philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie had the right idea a century ago when he built thousands of local libraries around the world. The Carnegie libraries made sense given the state of the art in educational information technology back then: the printed book. Local communities were obligated to invest in the buildings in the form of land and ongoing operating support from public sources. They were also required to make them free for anyone to use.

The world needs the twenty-first century equivalent of Carnegie libraries–beautiful, peaceful places where knowledge lives and grows and spreads. Places supported and beloved by local communities, open to everyone, that offer people all of the educational opportunities technology will make possible.”

There’s a reason that Pondiscio and I use similar language about relationships with institutions: they’re tremendously important. I don’t believe in a DIY approach to education. And the idea of small, new, low-cost, highly-effective learning institutions isn’t fantastical. I cite one in the book, the University of Minnesota-Rochester, the subject of a longer profile you can read here. The radical innovation of UM-R’s pedagogy and organizational cost structure is hidden by its place within a traditional university system, but it is no less real. If UM-R was possible with late 2000’s technology, imagine what the late 2020’s will bring. Parents won’t have to simply accept everything that’s bad about traditional colleges, and worse. They won’t have to pay through the nose for an unsustainable cost structure in order give their kids friendships and connections.

Anyone should be alarmed by the prospect of relegating under-prepared and disadvantaged students to a thin gruel of low-cost MOOCs. That’s why my book presents a very different vision of the future.

Author Bio: Kevin Carey is director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.