In my classroom at the community college where I teach, students can sit in two types of seats: at computers, which are arranged in horseshoe formation facing three walls in the room,or at the four rows of long desks that are in the center. It's a tight space, each table seating seven students. But every morning we meet, as if by instinct, my freshmen choose these desks over the individual computer stations. They wait to be asked before logging onto the PCs -- and they wait sitting quite close together. They are an ethnically diverse group from various Baltimore communities, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and a wide range of college preparedness.
Their desire to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing me, is essential. It means, whether they realize it or not, that their concept of college is driven by human interaction. The Internet, which many of them access nonstop through smartphones, is a secondary resource in our classroom. I, the live person, smiling encouragingly as they expound on a thought, am the first.
When discussing the rise of online learning and free massive open online courses as waves of the future, many ignore the dynamic a classroom like mine provides for a population often let behind. An unawareness of this important dynamic was evident at a recent public conversation between Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, New America Foundation president (and Atlantic contributing editor) Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg, when they discussed the apparent flaws in the traditional college model.
Steinberg, 35, was particularly negative about college as we know it today. He said that, when the time comes, he'll likely discourage his three- and four-year-old children from attending.“Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said. Steinberg went onto say that it’s Buzzfeed’s fellowship programs that best prepare their new hires. He characterizes a college degree as representing “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set” and adds, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they ... desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”
Perhaps owing to a generational gap, Schmidt and Slaughter, both in their 50s, still believe there's space for brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning, but more for the soft skills students learn outside the classroom, such as bill-paying, relationship-building, and self-reliance, and for the job opportunities a college degree may still be able to offer.
Said Schmidt: “The purpose of college… has a lot to do with, not learning about education but learning how to live on your own and so forth…. The core question is what to do with 18-year-olds and the best thing to do is to put them in college until they’re 22. We’ve [got] sort of a warehousing problem.” He also said that, because college is a rite of passage that helps students learn how to live away from home, “I think it’s going to be around for a very long time.”
Slaughter mentioned that her son, a junior in high school, is mulling college but has also “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.” She adds it’s becoming more common for students to take time off before attending college. “These kids are sort of thinking, ‘But I can learn what I need to learn online.’ … That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”
Theirs is, without doubt, a "one-percent" conversation. All three are Ivy League-educated -- a point that Schmidt was quick to acknowledge as Steinberg pooh-poohed the importance of college -- and Slaughter just left a tenured professorship at Princeton to accept the presidency at New America Foundation.