Higher education needs dramatic refom

By Brian Gongol

It's undisputed that America's higher-education system is the most respected and envied in the world. The sheer number of international students attending American schools is the proof. Having a jewel like that in our economic crown pays enormous dividends, both in the development of endogenous human capital (that is, making American-born workers more productive) and in attracting exogenous talent (that is, giving smart people from around the globe good reason to immigrate into the United States).

But the system faces serious systemic hazards that have been woefully ignored for a long time, and in the aggregate, they represent a huge risk: The failure to embrace technology is the most immediate threat. For too long, online coursework has been treated as second-class at best. This has inhibited the development of approaches that could have broadened the audience for higher education and sharpened the skills of the people developing online coursework. By clinging to an outdated notion of college as a place of sage-on-a-stage lectures and ivy-covered walls, American higher education has thus far largely missed out on substantial developments in our understanding of how to deliver education in better ways.

Education can be broken down into two different pieces -- the explainer role, and the coaching role. We don't need many great explainers if we're capable of recording and disseminating their explanations (and the remarkable success of the Khan Academy and TED Talks proves that there's an audience with an insatiable appetite for great explanations). Nothing about the explainer role needs to be tethered to a time and place (like Room 101 at 1:30 on Tuesdays).

Releasing many educators from the explainer role would allow them to better allocate their time to research and to the coaching role. Once something has been explained well, the student has to internalize it, and an educator skilled at teaching (in the most meaningful sense) knows how to tailor that process of internalization to the individual. Put another way, if we could only get smarter about the way we handle the initial introduction of information (by thinking beyond the classic lecture format), we could probably do a much more effective job of making sure that real learning takes place.

For now, the incumbent interest have managed to keep "online education" buried in second-class status. But it just takes a handful of reputable institutions to break out and bring it into equal footing with bricks-and-mortar education. MIT's Open Courseware is a meaningful step towards that, and by 2020, there won't be any meaningful stigma left attached to online education. However, if American colleges and universities continue to look down their noses at online education, global competitors will step in. At some point, accreditation will no longer be exclusive to the cartel of agencies that have heretofore held that role. Employers won't much care if a student earned a degree from State U. or from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Higher education in America shouldn't wait for conditions to become unbearable. Swift action is required. An industry characterized by high fixed costs, slow adaptation to change, and low returns to customer investment -- well, that's an industry in distress.

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