Those who have been following the ongoing debate between Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa have been gripped by the bolts of words flying between these two icons of innovation and the Valley. They must be the two most outspoken figures in and around that community, and the most radical in some of their ideas. I’ve never come across either, in the flesh or on the web, without learning something new about how I should be thinking – and making decisions. I am looking forward to moderating a panel this week in Napa at the Tech Policy Summit with Vivek on the team.
Here’s his latest salvo fired into the vastly uninnovated and uninnovative education machine, about which he and Thiel are both frustrated though with somewhat different results.
No time here to sum up their respective and forceful arguments, but 4 key points as business, policymakers, and citizens look at the realm of higher education.
1. In 5-10 years we will see changes as revolutionary as those that have gutted and are beginning to remake, for example, publishing. Sorry, faculty. My modest suggestion that we dump tenure caused friends to palpitate. Believe me, that’s just the beginning.
2. Vivek’s proposal that we re-jig student loans so they can be retired in fresh ways is powerful. Education is in general a public good not merely a private one. We have powerful incentives to avoid a scenario in which smart kids don’t get it and those who do have major debt burdens.
3. The slowness with which “distance learning” (there’s an old-time phrase) has been adopted, even modestly, shows that only high explosives will shift the mainstream of our college and grad systems. But that’s just what happens when economics and technology perform a pincer movement. And they will.
4. The biz community should be driving radical approaches to web-based learning, which could provide us initially with a national online “community college” with free tuition and open access; and in parallel a global effort with USAID and the other agencies as partners working to deliver full college degrees worldwide at no cost to the student. The growing universality of English as a second language offers a remarkable spur to such an effort. And the benefits to American business, our values, and in the long term our security are all obvious.
I’m not claiming we can teach everything like this, or that it will always be as good as what can be done in the classic small-college model where professors and students spend years in round-the-clock community. But there are many options – and they will grow fast – between that and an old-time correspondence course stuck on the internet. We will soon be able to have professors delivered by avatar into living rooms, not merely to spout but to respond. AI is not the be-all and end-all. But it sure is going to make much else we humans do a lot simpler and more efficient.
The future-oriented biz community has a huge part to play in driving imaginative efforts of this kind, and ensuring that they not only deliver particular skills (plainly some, like coding, are a lot easier to teach this way than, say, poetics), but to do so in a manner that builds on the liberal arts tradition that is the jewel in the crown of American post-secondary education.
Although I do think business can play some role in helping us innovate education for real, I also think we need to include academics in this discussion. After all, it’s really very silly that we now think of higher education in terms of business models first. Moreover, with advances in technology come new questions, as well as answers. Open Access is a prime example (http://cas-csid.cas.unt.edu/?p=3522).
I think it’s a bit naive to declare, as Wadhwa does, that “Even the poor in India and China” carry smartphones — as if that solves all of our ethical, political, policy, and institutional problems (if only we would innovate). Higher education in the developing world presents fascinating opportunities; but they are not opportunities that technology and business can or should take advantage of without help and input from other quarters. And while we’re blowing up education in the West, we ought to think about people in the developing world, too. What are the consequences for learning in China, for instance, if the university no longer exists in the West?
I don’t see the spread of the smartphone as solving all problems, and I’m sure Vivek doesn’t either! But it is a mighty playing-field leveler.
Don’t disagree at all that we need academics in this discussion, but when I made a similar argument about new comms and research resources in the developing world shifting the game at a recent international conference, one of the better-placed academics in the audience stood up and said my argument was “crap.” Ahem. They sure are not going to lead the convo.
And the university as-is will go down in the west, aside from among the super-elites, whether we like it or not (look at the tragedy of the Cal. system). What we need is robust innovative initiatives to address both ends of the problem. I so welcome the Thiel-Wadhwa exchanges as they are giving this a focus outside of the stultifying halls of the academy (and, worse, for-profit education, which is another matter altogether . . .).
I agree that the university as-is will go down in the West (aside from the super-elites). Those of us within the Academy who are trying to find ways to innovate — for instance, by developing alternative notions of academic rigor, new ways to value our research (for instance, altmetrics), and questioning who ought to count as a ‘peer’ — are often greeted with similar derision from fellow academics.
I therefore applaud those outside of the Academy who are trying to topple it. We need a shakeup. But not all of us academics have our heads in the sand. The person you cite surely represents the majority view, however. So much the worse.
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