Fixing higher education
This article gives a brief summary of the goals of Peter Diamandis, who has gone from creating the X prize to trying to fix the educational system. Certainly any good ideas in this area are welcome, but I think we need to understand just what the problems with “education”, particularly “higher education” are. Most of this will probably be old news to those who study the issue formally, but this will hopefully be helpful as a general framework for everyone else.
- The actual “learning” problem. Getting useful facts into the minds of people. The challenges around this one are fairly well-understood. People with differing levels of ability made need different amounts of background information. Different learning styles (visual, tactile, auditory, etc.) need to be accommodated. Things of that nature. The ultimate fix is obviously something like Matrix-style insta-learning, but until then smaller innovations are surely possible.
- The “credentialing” problem. How do we prove that an individual knows what they say they do (or think they do)? Plenty of schemes have been devised by organizations to gauge ability, with varying levels of success depending on the individual, organizations, methods, etc. Thankfully, the costs to being wrong are not nearly as bad as they are made out to be; picking the “wrong” candidate is not likely to be the downfall of any particular organization. The real issue is simply the value of the credential. As has become obvious, it’s used as a filtering mechanism since there are so many more people who need jobs than open positions. The “fix” here is to adjust society and culture to the idea that fewer people will work in the future, and that’s OK. A guaranteed income and universal health care will mean we can finally separate jobs from livelihoods. This has the added bonus of likely reducing competition for jobs, which will mean less wheat/chaff sorting will be necessary.
- The “funding” problem. Higher education is expensive. Debt is burdensome. All well known, and well understood issues. Thankfully, this one seems like the easiest to fix. Remote, online learning systems has made enormous progress (Khan Academy being the most prominent recent example.) We could have a central repository of lessons taught in different styles, and in different languages so that it’s highly accessible to different types of learners. What goes away in this equation is the need for huge numbers of teachers teaching the same subject over and over for years on end when a single repository of “best-in-class” lessons will do (not to mention physical campuses, classrooms, etc.) The lessons could of course be updated from time to time if new facts become available or the like, but by and large, everyone would draw from the same pool of instructional materials. This will help bring the cost of education way, way down. Free (for the student – public funding makes a great deal of sense here) higher education with this model becomes an extremely compelling prospect.
- The “networking” problem. The case has often been made that the real value of higher education is the ability to mix with others (in person) who will later become bosses, co-workers, company co-founders, vendors, customers, etc. along with easy idea exchange/serendipity enabling. Those who make this case rightly argue that “learning” is secondary (and could probably be handled with the methods outlined above) and that the real value with the current boots-on-campus system is that relationships and chance meetings. While I agree with the principle, this seems like something that is fairly easily replaced with trade shows, workshops, conventions, co-working spaces, networking events, and such. Boots-on-campus can be turned into boots-in-wherever-other-interested people are. There’s probably good business innovation opportunities for providing lists, search capabilities, targeted event hosting, the works.
- The “time” problem. Due to the way we learn currently (we really do need that insta-learning system), one thing is hard to reduce: time. It still takes a minimum amount of time to really learn the subjects that may be important to one’s career. While doing all this learning, you tend to not be making much (or any) money. Dedicated autodidacts who work (whom I count myself among) are likely the exceptions to this know this one well. It’s useful, important, even fun – but there’s no question about the time commitment on a daily basis. Those without a lot of discipline and a willingness to give up a lot of other things may find doing things this way impossible, even if someone else is footing the bill. If someone else isn’t footing the bill? Then you often have real problems. Work while in school? It’s the perfect recipe for burnout, and forgetting most of the things you learn. Live off your savings? A very bitter pill, often impossible. As we can see, this issue is tougher, but there are possibilities here. The very first one is full-funding for living costs (with all the expected means-testing and restrictions – things like no dependents, limits on how long you can attend, etc. to keep the system honest.) Combined with the far cheaper cost of education due to number four above, and this one could be workable.
Now that we have a framework for understanding the issues with higher education today, we can hopefully dig harder for solutions. It’s a multi-faceted problem, with each facet having a different level of difficulty, but none insurmountable. As for Mr. Diamandis and his quest, I’m looking forward to what he comes up with. It’s certainly a worthy goal.
An aside: Autodidacticism in today’s world. For many careers, this has become a necessity. You’re required to keep up with all the latest research, trends, tools, and a variety of other things that make you current. Sure, having a solid foundation helps, but is no longer enough (I’d argue it hasn’t been enough for a long time.) You’re required to learn every day to keep up. Some may find this distasteful, even abhorrent, but I believe it’s the reality today, and as the speed of progress increases, will only become more pronounced. Again, a guaranteed basic income would mean that the pressure to do this for those who aren’t equipped for it (or just hate it) would go away. Self-starters would be rewarded without others winding up homeless. This solution seems more obvious every single day. It also means that for those left competing, things would get far more meritocratic. It’s a win all around.