Friday, February 22, 2013

HT Tim Bulkekely "What's Wrong with Higher Education?"

 ... Clay Shirkey, always a provocative and often a prescient commentator has an interesting take on the state of higher education. His starting point is cost benefit. In the USA the cost of a basic bachelor’s degree rose 75% in the first ten years of this century while the income of graduates has dropped 15% (both figures adjusted to 2000 dollars). That’s hardly a powerful selling-point! In NZ a Statistics NZ report in 2007 found that already then “Debt [was] increasing proportionally faster than income”, this is not merely an American tale.

And so ...

... Bustillos' answers seem to be that in the world of higher education, things are going fine, mostly, and that the parts that aren’t going fine can largely be fixed with tax dollars. (Because if there’s one group you'd pin your hopes for an American renaissance on, it would be state legislators.) I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.

That sentiment is the first sentence of Kio Stark’s forthcoming book, Don’t Go Back to School. It’s a guide for people taking the advice in the title; Stark interviewed almost hundred people who dropped out or took a pass on everything from high school to grad school, but still figured out how to learn what they needed to learn, in order to do what they wanted to do.


The value of that degree remains high in relative terms, but only because people with bachelor's degrees have seen their incomes shrink less over the last few years than people who don't have them. "Give us tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life so you can suffer less than your peers" isn't much of a proposition. More like a ransom note, really.

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, "Isn’t there some other way to do this?"
MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.


I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I've always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

Twenty years ago I started college.  I had already worked out that nothing that interested me would ever land me much of a job.  Biblical literature?  I knew there was probably no chance of getting a teaching job with that unless I jumped through denominational hoops I knew I didn't want to deal with, and I never wanted (and don't want) to be a pastor.  What about literature?  What about literature?  Getting a degree in literature seemed useless even to me at 18 and 19.  Philosophy?  I didn't think I'd want to be a lawyer and the other options were the teaching route and teaching, I benefited from teaching, to be sure, but I didn't want to get into education.

How about music?  Well, sometimes I wish I'd gone that route but instead I became a journalism student.  Ha, even before I'd graduated I realized that there was no way I was going to get a job with the degree but I also realized I'd foundered at algebra and so shifting into the fields of study that were more likely to land me work (i.e. the hard sciences) was impossible for me half-way through completing my education.  I was never good enough at math (and I was not sure my public school teachers in mathematics were good enough) to have gotten me on that path.  So realizing that I'd already been on the path to study a host of useless things in terms of a job search I finished my journalism degree because in the 1990s, at least, it was probably smarter to at least finish the degree because, as a couple of candid professors told me, even by the 1990s all a B.A. proved was you could finish an expensive committment.

Okay, then, I figured i should at least prove that I could do that much.  So I graduated with what I knew was already a useless degree the year before I got it.  But as useless degrees went journalism, at the time, might still have been better than theology, literature or music as a field of study.  My friends had gotten the impression I was already a music major because of the course load I was taking.  I was already voluntarily trying to work out invertible counterpoint while I was making sure I graduated with the journalism degree I had.  There's a point in possibly everyone's life where you figure out you made a decision that has no actually good outcome and the best you can manage is damage control.  I learned how to write competently along the way and that's netted me some activity here and there. 

It could have been worse, after all, since it was just a college degree and not a marriage.  Only my life was potentially ruined by a possibly ill-advised and expensive decision.  At least I finished the degree.  Not everyone I know who incurred college debt even managed to finish their degrees.  How's that for optimism?  :)

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