Beyond The End of College

A new book predicts the technological disruption of the traditional university. But it fails to acknowledge that higher learning involves more than looking at a screen.

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Given the drumbeat of doomsday declarations about higher education in recent years, it might be tempting to dismiss The End of College as part of the pile-on by would-be disrupters. But that would be mistake. While Kevin Carey, a Washington education-policy analyst at the New America Foundation, may have swallowed too much of the disruption Kool-Aid, his call for more accessible student-centered universities is a powerful response to some of the real problems that beset these institutions today.

In 2008, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, along with Michael Horn, published Disrupting Class, an account of how “radical innovation” would change K-12 education systems. In 2011, Christensen and Henry J. Eyring came out with The Innovative University, which explored how higher ed would have to respond to the pressures of technological change—if it were to survive at all. Christensen’s publications have been followed by a wave of books, articles, op-eds, and films pronouncing the imminent demise of higher ed as the country knows it.

Many of these pronouncements are derivative or uninformed; some are made by folks who have been to Silicon Valley and believe they have seen the future. They are impressed by the money, by the gadgets, and by the macho confidence of successful, hip people there who think they are fundamentally “changing the world”—or, at least, use this phrase in their elevator speeches.

Carey’s pronouncements aren’t uninformed, and he is no stranger to the workings of higher ed. His father was a professor of computer science, and his mother earned a doctorate in education. Carey makes thoughtful use of digital analytic tools in his writing on data and education for The New York Times, and his think tank has deep ties to the technology industry. The chairman of its board, for example, oversees Google’s executive team. So it’s no surprise that Carey writes glowingly about the cool-sounding startups he toured in Palo Alto and San Francisco that want to “hack” higher ed. Readers learn about these endeavors in an awkward chapter entitled “Thunder Lizards,” which concludes breathlessly with this takeaway: “Another group of startup companies was aiming for full-scale Godzilla-style higher education disruption, with the burning cities and charred carcasses of advancing tank brigades.”

Carey sees this kind of disruption already approaching what he terms (with an ironic nod to the University of Pittsburgh and its landmark building) “cathedrals of learning.” He defines these “cathedrals” as elite institutions that are proud of how difficult it is to get admitted onto their campuses. Three of the handful of schools he reports visiting—Harvard, Stanford, and MIT—admit fewer than 10 percent of their very strong applicant pools. This dynamic of exclusivity is, Carey contends, about to change. Big time.

Those that cannot change will disappear. The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come.

In this book, the rhetoric of disruption is nearly apocalyptic.

While a whiff of resentment lingers around Carey’s prose concerning elite institutions, he remains enamored by their prestige. When he signs up for an online biology course as part of his research, he heads right to MIT’s offerings and appears proud to report his test scores from the class. (This author isn’t just smart; he’s MIT smart!) Carey’s point, though, is an important one: The online class that the Cambridge institution makes available and free to anyone in the world through its “MITx” program is good enough for teaching something as advanced as complex genomics. You don’t have to get admitted to MIT to learn this stuff. Funny though, when MIT makes its classes available online for free, more people than ever apparently want to attend the school as formally enrolled students. Carey, however, doesn’t discuss why they want to study and work face-to-face rather than watch what happens from a distance on a screen.

Carey contrasts the pedagogical sophistication of the best MOOCs, like his MIT biology class, with what he imagines to be the careless, untrained in-person teaching of research-oriented professors. He is quite sure that students get little out of sitting in lectures: “With lectures, it’s always distance education,” he writes. And he makes a strong point about the disconnection of students in the back of the room from the sage on the stage. But he presents no data or arguments on why some teachers are better than others, or about why in-person education might have some benefits. He wants to convince the reader that universities are merely defending the velvet ropes of exclusivity. He writes that the current system of getting into college “is a lot like being invited onto a yacht … where you get to sip cocktails served by attractive young women.” Really? For whom is this true?

Be that as it may, the new online classes aren’t just passive viewing experiences. Massive Open Online Courses developed by MITx and Harvardx (through the edX platform) or Coursera don’t just disseminate information; they have been designed in nuanced ways to respond to the diverse cognitive learning styles of millions of students. Here, Carey sees the seeds of a revolution in how universities teach and how many people can do college work at the highest level.

Carey’s target is the “hybrid university,” which since the late 19th century has combined research, professional instruction, and undergraduate teaching under what he describes as one unwieldy umbrella. In his criticism, he reprises the late University of California President Clark Kerr’s witty description of the model: “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

Carey has no problem finding ex-professors now preaching the gospel of disruption. He appears especially wowed by the charismatic computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, whose for-profit company Udacity tried out its online approach at San Jose State University in 2013 without much success. Noting the protests of advocates who campaign against online materials, Carey pokes fun at what he casts as an archaic academic guild worried about its jobs. And even though the San Jose experiment proved to be a failure, Carey doesn’t express any doubts about the efficacy of the MOOC model. Thrun himself has even been much more forthright about the shortcomings of this sector: "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”

Perhaps expressing such doubts would diminish Carey’s disruptive credentials. In order to be heard among the chorus of would-be agents of radical change, he opts for pure hype: “People will be free to organize higher-education institutions in ways that make much more sense in terms of cost, size and the focus of human activity,” he writes. “Great colleges won’t have to be scarce and expensive anymore. They will be everywhere.”

It would be a big mistake, though, and a missed opportunity, for people who care about higher ed to dismiss The End of College, whatever its hype and blind spots. It would be a mistake because Carey’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of global, accessible education is actually a continuation—not necessarily a disruption—of the mission of expanding higher ed that began with the creation of the hybrid university. He rightly attacks the performance of these institutions because student learning has often gotten lost in the shuffle of their competing interests. But the mission to connect authentic research with compelling teaching can be the kind of productive hybridity that has served this country so well.

As Carey recognizes, this does happen at many liberal-arts colleges. Professors are active scholars, scientists, writers, and artists—they are creating knowledge on campus, not just disseminating it. The students feel strongly about this; they recognize that learning is more powerful when it is active rather than only receptive. This can also happen at larger universities—but it takes creative design and purposeful investment.

As president of a small institution focused on undergraduate liberal education, I may be expected to defend the status quo. But I do not. We now have an opportunity for fundamental change in higher ed, but that shouldn’t translate into the reduction of its mission. Online education will be part of the new, more effective hybrid educational platforms. I have taught two different MOOCs myself and have found the experience exhilarating. I’ve witnessed students from around the world engage with one another and with me in intellectual cross-training, what Carey describes as developing “broad patterns and principles that transfer to new environments.” In discussion groups, many MOOC participants express the intense desire to come to a university campus—a physical place, however hybrid, at which they can pursue learning beyond digital screens.

My small institution has served over 1 million students from more than 120 countries through MOOCs in less than three years. These classes have been free for the students, and it has been absolutely thrilling for the professors who have devoted a good portion of their careers to helping students learn and now are touching so many, many more. Alas, that sense of devotion, a feeling I’ve encountered at American colleges and universities across the country, is not something the Carey seems to recognize. Or, at least, it doesn’t fit into his “this needs disruption” narrative. As Jill Lepore demonstrated last year in The New Yorker, the idea of disruption is “transfixed by change” and “blind to continuity,” and thus “makes a very poor prophet.”

Whatever the technology, the tradition of pragmatic liberal education empowers students by addressing them as whole, complex individuals—not just as users or eyeballs. Let’s not succumb to the techno-fantasy of thinking higher ed can be hacked into an app—comparable to ordering a taxi or arranging a date via a selfie. In the 19th century, Emerson urged students to “resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding his or her world, not narrowing it: Notice everything, but imitate nothing, he urged. Carey’s book should challenge readers to develop this cultivated attentiveness beyond the traditional university.

The most important lesson of recent commentary on higher ed isn’t about disruption; it’s about the importance of learning as a way of life that can be made much more accessible with tools both old and new. If professors and administrators invest in student learning with the same intensity that they’ve applied to research and the trappings of prestige, America may yet have the chance to avoid the end of college.