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.