The University of the United States: Please can we get on with it?

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Another smart piece from the ubersmart @cathyndavidson on the future of higher ed has me mulling yet again . . .. She has a way of generating mull.

It’s perhaps been no surprise that “distance education” (in its many modalities) has lingered outside the mainstream for a score of years longer than one might have expected. There are, of course, reasons. Substantively, a deep unease that the secret sauce of higher ed is related to campuses and classrooms and realtime connectedness between professors and students. OK, large state universities do not exactly fit that norm, but we shall leave it for now. The presence of tacky, usually for-profit, operators with (on a good day) marginal accreditation. The commitment of our better educators to the avoidance of, essentially, school by scantron.

But the real barriers have been formal. Higher education is the most conservatively-organized enterprise on the planet. Back in the day when I worked in one of its outposts (early 90s), I watched a multi-year reform process designed by one of the nation’s leading educators encompass at least two PhDs and four vast volumes of materials, and achieve, exactly, zero. My observation: the system was designed to resist nuclear attack, and we were watching the faculty clamber out of their bunkers, blinking but unbowed.

My view is that in the next 10-12 years higher education will undergo creative destruction on the scale that publishing has been experiencing of late and travel agencies (remember them?) a quinquennium earlier. The online/free experiments that somewhat self-consciously a cluster of major schools has initiated (and that seems to have been a cause of the wonderful free public entertainment afforded of late by the lunatic managers of UVa) are extraordinarily late in the day. But they are with us.

Back to point: Here is what we need. OK, I have said this before, but since you didn’t listen, world, let me say it again. And note the strategic context. It could hardly be bigger.

The major opportunity for the United States to influence global culture and secure lasting relationships in the flux of C21 lies precisely here: In the initiation of a United States open university offering full degree programs worldwide to all comers. We have perhaps an 8-10 years branding advantage against certain rival institutions, chiefly in China, who will otherwise take on this task with abandon. While much could have been achieved a decade ago, key factors from 2012 out are the explosive adoption of mobile, mobile’s shift even in developing nations to feature phones and smartphones, and very large improvements (even if not quite to the levels Ray Kurzweil keeps expecting) in the AIs that enable language interpretation and the increasingly post-clunky experience of distance teaching.

A dozen major issues are raised, but they can all be answered. What we need is for the school to open its doors. Within a decade effectively every one of planet earth’s denizens will have access to smartphone mobile connectedness. And that’s all we need.

Then let the chips fall. Yes, US-based students may join in. Yes, this will destroy large swathes of the higher-end global education infrastructure as we know it. And, oh yes, dumping tenure (one of my favored targets) will certainly help us get there from here (all we need, seems to me, is an appropriations rider in Congress).

But blending the vast educational nous of the UK’s visionary Open University with our latest tech delivery methods, the Department of Education‘s savvy, the global cultural outreach of USAID – together with our vital partnerships in UNESCO and the World Bank  . . . the question is not whether but how, and when.

Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens? | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation.

The Future and Us and Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil at Stanford Singularity Summit.

Ray Kurzweil at Stanford Singularity Summit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ray Kurzweil is one of around a dozen figures who mark out the space between present and future – and us and technologies. He is an optimist as to speed of progress and its generally beneficent character, up to and including his “singularity.” Here he is noting, in general rather helpfully, that the future is easier to predict than some may think, in areas where exponential digital change is driving events (if you like, on Gordon Moore‘s moors.)

Of course the fun really starts when technologies bump into each other (convergence), when their disruptive impact is so great it’s just not clear what’s going to happen next, when people (yay, people!) decide to make decisions that shape what comes next, and so on.

I’ve written before about various aspects of all this (not least the rapid aging of companies that are out there on Moore’s moors – segue to Facebook‘s valuation, and so on). It’s handy to be reminded of the impact of the digital factor. Perhaps we can devise an impact factor that could be attached to companies, business models, and industries. Those close to pure digital will flourish rapidly and collapse/be superseded very fast. The search/social phalanx is slowly being followed by biotechnology as digitization and the management of huge data sets moves along (and, oh yes, typewriters and sliderules . . .). Random industries such as travel agency and cameras (sorry, Kodak) were hit hard and early. Publishing has taken longer and is going through an anguished process that will not soon be resolved. Education, especially higher education, has resisted with a fortitude and insouciance that would have been hard to resist.

So yes, some things are easier to predict. Some much less so. Some will always surprise. And then there’s the human factor.

Ray Kurzweil on Predicting the Future #WIFNY | Working Knowledge ®.