What “The End of College” Means for University Instructors – Are We Now Priests Instead?

In the future college will be nearly free. Harvard and MIT professors will lecture to students around the world via the Internet. The University of Everywhere will fill the earth. Students will come from towns, cities, and countries from all cultures. They will become members of a growing global middle class that will spread social and economic development to their homelands. Eventually, all humanity will be overseen and protected from death by the Tabernacle, an artificial intelligence.

OK, the last part isn’t true – it comes from the 1974 sci-fi Sean Connery camp classic Zardoz. But all the other predictions are made in Kevin Carey’s new book called The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

Carey is an education-policy analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He argues that higher education in its current form is dying, something that I have also said many times on this site. Rising college costs, swelling student debt, and the diminishing value of a college degree in the job market all threaten the sustainability of higher education. What Carey does is attempt to describe what will replace it once the current system falls apart. He calls this place the University of Everywhere.

“The University of Everywhere is where students of the future will go to college,” he writes. Due to rapid improvements in information technology, students will be able to take advantage of all the opportunities they would get at “real” universities but for little to no cost. To him, they will resemble a more high-tech version of MOOCs that Ivy League schools are already making available for free to anyone on Earth with an Internet connection.

Carey tested his theory by taking MIT’s introductory biology course. He had no scientific training and wanted to see the experience through the eyes of an undergraduate. To take this course, Carey merely signed up online, then started watching videos of lectures, along with reading course texts. He first expected that he would feel a sense of loss by not being in an actual classroom. To his surprise, the opposite effect happened. He could focus on the course without worrying about other students distracting him by texting or watching Youtube videos. But the biggest realization is that this education could be made available to anyone on Earth.

“The important thing isn’t that I took the course — it’s that tens of thousands of other people took the course, representing almost every dimension of diversity imaginable,” he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “And that M.I.T. was able to almost perfectly replicate the course it requires its own students to take and provide it online at zero marginal cost. That strikes me as a pretty amazing fact in terms of what’s already possible, today.”

While he doesn’t argue for everyone to learn from a laptop, Carey does make a case for a no-frills, democratized form of online enhanced education that will cut costs of learning to virtually nothing.Yes, the University of Everything won’t have the student quads or suite-style dorm rooms that make up an idealized college experience (although he does support the idea of real-world learning communities for students so that everyone isn’t forced to learn in their parents’ basements). But he thinks this is an overstuffed feature of higher education to begin with.

Most interesting for us instructors, Carey predicts that colleges will need to become more like cathedrals, where students return throughout their lifetimes. They will treat a university like a religious person treats their organization of faith: a lifelong affinity that changes according to their stage in life, but it involves an ongoing commitment to shared values and ideas about learning, including regular meetings with fellow students in the local community. It will require “a commitment of time and money that’s not so insignificant, but not so great that it’s incompatible with having a job and a family. I think that would be a better relationship than one based on youthful nostalgia, tribal loyalty, exploitative semiprofessional sports franchises and periodic begging for money, which is what we have today.”

So if universities become more like cathedrals, will that make an instructor a priest? And what does that mean for us in the academic world? Leaving aside criticisms of Carey’s book (and there are many; that his book lacks in-depth research, that MOOC experiments which model the University of Everything have had disastrous results, or that online education will not benefit those who lack access to technology) let’s assume his vision of the future holds true.

If college instructors become more like leaders of a faith community, then I think there are two big implications. First, there will be less focus on research and more focus on instruction – akin to a faith leader spending more time with his or her congregation and less time in theology books. The modern “hybrid university” has since the late 19th century combined research, professional instruction, and undergraduate teaching under one umbrella. This Frankenstein model makes for what the late University of California President Clark Kerr calls “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” But in a future universities where these aspects are unbundled, the value of a professor to a student will be for his or her ability to teach, not to publish in arcane journals. They will likely be more valued for undergraduate instruction than graduate, since the former is in far higher demand than the latter. Like a faith leader, their value will be in their ability to teach and provide practical information, not for their dense theoretical knowledge.

Second, and more important, a professor will engage with students at more diverse stages of life. Much as a pastor or priest has parishioners of all age ranges, from children to the elderly, a professor in the future will have far more students that fall outside the 18-22 age range. Yes, there have always been non-traditional students at universities, but what if Carey’s prediction comes true and the non-traditional student becomes merely one of a diverse spread of age ranges in a classroom? If so, then professors will have to assume a more flexible pedagogy. While, course content is the same for whomever you teach, the way that an impressionable 18-year-old receives that content is much different than a 50-year-old who is well established in his or her career. Conjecturally, I think this would require an instructor to approach their students who are their same age or older more as a client who needs your consulting services rather than a junior member of your department who needs to photocopy your expense reports.


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