Hacking the University: A Future Tense Event Recap

Naomi Davidson, Tammy Wincup, Hal Plotkin, Greg Ratliff, and Kevin Carey at the Future Tense event at the New America Foundation

Photo by Kirsten Holtz/New America Foundation

Even Socrates was skeptical of technology in higher education—he worried about the effect that a newfangled thing called writing would have on learning. According to Kevin Carey, director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, Socrates thought that the written word was the enemy of memory for students. In some ways, he was right. But there were also significant benefits to writing, and eventually, books: information could travel greater distances, was more accessible to more people, and cost a whole lot less than hiring Aristotle as your tutor.

In fact, new education technologies are almost always distrusted by the old guard, at least initially, and accused of lowering quality. On Wednesday, at a Future Tense event in Washington D.C., called “Hacking the University: Will Tech Fix Higher Education?”, it was clear that alongside the emergence of new online teaching technologies, this debate is still raging. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

So, if things like MOOCs can educate people at their leisure, at lower costs, will we still need universities? After all, almost every aspect of the basic college lecture course can be put online, as Kevin Carey pointed out. And although there are benefits to being on campus and interacting with professors and other students, they’re difficult to quantify. Still, “we need universities because most people are not autodidacts with the discipline to learn by themselves,” Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer of Arizona State University Online, argued. Not to mention, MOOCs are not a substitute for a college course; they’re something new and different, Robin Goldberg, chief marketing officer of the Minerva Project, added. “College courses are important, but they aren’t the totality of the educational experience.”

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen predictions of the technological slaying of universities. As panelist Jeff Selingo, the author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, pointed out, Newsweek asked “Who Needs College?” in 1976 on a splashy cover. But it’s Newsweek that went out of business, while there are more universities than ever. Still, Selingo said, this time it’s different. Besides the threat of technology infringing on their turf, 75 percent of colleges today have flat or declining revenue. They’ve become mini-cities, trying to do a lot for a lot of people, but the model has become too expensive for both the institutions and the students—a fact that many colleges have yet to contend with.

Universities are slow to recognize that people go to college for different reasons, Selingo said—whether as a coming of age marker, in pursuit of a career, or, of course, midlifers seeking a career change. Technology startups, however, are unbundling these different purposes and focusing on one or two buckets of higher education consumers. And, he added, smart institutions will likely end up doing the same.

That might end up benefiting everyone. The notion behind technology-mediated learning material is that it becomes more appropriate for students, Sannier told the audience—with the help of machine learning, lessons will be more personalized, let students move through material faster, and, hopefully, participate more vibrantly in their learning communities.

But one thing colleges do that MOOCs cannot yet do, for better or worse, is signal to the workforce that a graduate is employable. According to Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, finishing a traditional four-year college degree indicates some degree of intelligence, work ethic, and, of course, conformity to social markers of success. Even the technology industry, which prides itself on employing people who have taken nontraditional paths, uses old-school graduate credentials to sort out potential employees. As education technologies begin to allow for some form of non-traditional credentialing, the first nonconformists are going to have a tough time of it, he predicted.

And of course, we shouldn’t forget that access to technology across the United States is unequal, and most of the companies developing new education technologies focus on those with resources, Carey reminded the audience. Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education, agreed. “The first people using 3-D imagining technology in the classroom will not be community college students in Appalachia,” he said. There is also concern that in the near future, only the elites will have the benefit of interpersonal interaction at college, while the poor get MOOCs.

Perhaps the solution is some mix of the two, Greg Ratliff, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, suggested: “Technology when you want it, people when you don’t.”