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This is a guest post by entrepreneur Miro Kazakoff
Somewhere, this year, a university hired its last tenured professor. That’s because of the economic pressures on higher education. Next year, a university will hire its last faculty member expected to teach in a classroom. And that’s because of the technological pressures on higher education.
Technology won’t kill university education any more than television killed radio, but it will transform it. While your kids will still go to college, and it will still cost a fortune, their study time will look radically different than it does today. Even though our university classroom teachers may be replaced with robots, websites or direct-to-brain Ethernet jacks, on-campus higher education will still have a place that no Massive Open Online Course will supplant in our lifetime.
To understand why the future won’t kill college, it helps to remember how technology has already transformed education.
Content is approaching free, and we don’t need armies of faculty to curate it
In the middle ages, getting “access to content” was a physical ordeal. Books had to be copied by hand and gathering knowledge required physically getting your hands on one of those precious tomes. Then came the printing press, broadcast media, and then the Internet. With each wave, creating and distributing content has gotten cheaper and more democratic.
The first European universities were created in those same middle-ages and still act as physical repositories of knowledge. I remember a time when even a textbook was hard to get your hands on outside of a University Bookstore. One way professors contributed to learning was simply to curate their syllabi and point students at the right books. There was no path to one of those syllabi with out buying a semester of tuition.
Now you can combine a course list with a couple of searches for syllabi and assemble your own do-it-yourself Biomedical Engineering curriculum at home.
Teaching is quickly following content towards free
The signs came slowly at first: mail order classes that moved to email, YouTube videos of every cooking technique imaginable, community college and online schools experimenting with distance learning for busy professionals.
Then Bill Gates wrangled a Ted Talk for an unlikely YouTube star and the power of education technology to transform the classroom was on the lips of every venture capitalist I know. Salman Khan’s short math videos were already getting millions of hits, and since then the pace of growth in the ed-tech space has been exploding.
Now we’re seeing some big bets on how we can leverage technology to distribute classroom teaching in the same massive way the Internet distributes other content. The $37 million poured into Massive Online Open Courses like Coursera, and Udacity, as well as the non-profit collaboration of Harvard and MIT on edX may or may not mean that big money will be made, but it does mean that a bunch of smart people are going to be working on cracking the code to delivering better teaching online to more people at lower cost.
History provides a pretty reliable guide that cheaper access to better information that helps people improve their economic outlook in life is likely to have widespread appeal.
Universities have changed focus before
Delivering content, even via exceptional teaching, has never been all (or even most) of a university’s value proposition. No university cites its mission as: “efficiently transmitting knowledge to barely post-pubescent walking balls of hormones with ferocious intellects.” Universities seem themselves as creating people and citizens.
They provide students a social environment to form connections with other students. The bonds formed between students are part of what makes a university education so valuable and are hard to replicate online.
Delivering experiences has become a larger focus of schools. You see this as graduate MBA programs shift away from classroom teaching. Top schools like Harvard Business School, MIT and Wharton have moved their curriculum towards personalized coaching, group projects and experiential learning that overlaps the classroom and the outside world. That’s what has kept these programs relevant (or at least desirable) long after anyone can buy an HBS case study online, and that’s what will we’ll see filter down to the undergrad level.
So, the new job of universities will be the same as the old job: to primarily credential students rather than just teach them. Teaching won’t die, it will just morph into individualized instruction and experiences that prepare students for the world. Professors will become coaches and gateways to those experiences. And that great teaching you heard about on the campus tour? Forget about it. You can get it cheaper online.
Miro Kazakoff is the CEO of Testive, a Techstars education technology company focused on adaptive technologies and personalized learning.
Their test prep tool, SAT Habit, generates customized student plans that help students improve their SAT scores faster. He lectures at MIT Sloan School of Management where he received his MBA.
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