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John Robb on “The Education Bubble” and the Opportunities Provided

John Robb, the author of Brave New War, recently speculated on the future of American education at Global Guerillas.

His first noteworthy point centers upon his assessment of the current educational process. Referring to our current form as an admixture of industrial and artisan processes, Robb correctly notes that “the quantities of product (graduates) produced and the facilities resemble industrial processes” even as the “actual production is most closely akin to artisanship (with guilds, no less!).”

Amazon.comSuch a reference mirrors one of the age-old questions for educators. Is teaching a science or an art? It also raises one of the ongoing and legitimate criticisms of the current educational structure, one that actually follows the factory assembly line model.

Higher Education

Robb spends little time on that notion, instead shifting immediately to the costs of education and the failure of schools, at all levels, to significantly increase student performances despite enormous funding increases. Here again, Robb is dead on, and his description of the process as “an albatross of cost and stagnating quality” is certainly consistent with those who are concerned with the failure of public schools to significantly improve student performance.  

But Robb saves his strongest criticisms for higher education. Beginning with the costs for collegiate education, expenses that have increased 4.39 times faster than inflation over the last three decades, Robb indicates that higher education is no longer affordable for most households, especially as median family incomes stagnate.

Robb offers the following interesting assertion:

“Worse, there is reason to believe that costs of higher education (direct costs and lost income) are now nearly equal (in net present value) to the additional lifetime income derived from having a degree.  Since nearly all of the value of an education has been extracted by the producer, to the detriment of the customer, this situation has all the earmarks of a bubble.”

Unlike the Housing Bubble
While the current situation involving higher education has all the makings of matching the recent housing bubble, instead of the downturn facing the housing sector Robb sees the higher education bubble as offering immense opportunity to introduce educational improvements.  

At the heart of those improvements is the greater use of technology and the “ability of collaborative online education to replace much, if not most of in person teaching.” As many others have noted, there are some specific improvements afforded by greater use of technology in education:

  • Lectures – Robb notes that video lecture series, along with associated learning materials, for many courses at some of the best universities in the world are now available online. He rightly notes that such an option allows students to get the very best lecture available (“There is no need to recreate the lecture with tens of thousands of less qualified/exceptional teachers”). mrploughWhy attend another university when the very best lectures are available free.
  • Application – Robb adds the push towards just-in-time information processes. Operating online with a JIT focus, we “can train kids to adults in complicated and complex tasks in a fraction of the time other methods require.” Such an approach is the complete antithesis of our current approach, one that features a broad array of subjects and concepts with the idea that students learn certain materials just-in-case there may be a need to know sometime in the future.  
  • Collaboration – Robb notes the shifting of the business world from in-person work to a greater emphasis in online collaboration. Instead, at the university level, we continue the age old push to have face-to-face contact, with all students and the professor being present at the same time and in the same place. The idea of moving aspects online still is not “central to the educational world.”

We have discussed many of these notions in our prior work, including a lecture repository, just-in-time learning, and the need for education to begin to embrace the concept of social networking. We have also shared with readers David Wiley’s assessment that higher education as it currently is structured is “Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant.”

Education’s Shift to a Fully Online Environment
While some may see his suggestions as radical, Robb is unequivocal as to the future of education.

“The shift towards online education as the norm and in-person as the exception will arrive,” he writes, “however, the path is unclear.  It is currently blocked by guilds/unions, inertia, credentialism, and romantic notions.” 

As noted, if we are indeed in a higher education bubble, the current economic downturn could well become one of the key catalysts for a radical shift in educational delivery. Robb suggests that the need for local governments to balance their budgets in the face of dwindling revenues will demand extensive cost-cutting measures. Those cost-cutting steps will have to include reduced monies for education, often the single biggest local expense, forcing higher education to pursue more cost-effective delivery methods (online courses).

If we are in the midst of a real higher education bubble, schools will likely see a dwindling student population. Here, Robb speculates on a amazing option. What if MIT or Harvard decided to “offer full credentials to online students at a tiny fraction of the cost of being in attendance.”  He postulates that the result just might be “ten million students enroll in the first year to attend Harvard’s virtual world.”

metaweb20Of course, yet another option involves an entirely different take, one that features the opensource movement. If in-person education continues to be too expensive but no institution is able to step forward to create a major online brand, the entire world of education shifts. “A massive open source effort develops,” writes Robb, leading to the creation of “virtual worlds and other online courseware that rivals the best universities.”

In the third scenario there would be a need for a new credentialing agency. Of course one quick answer could be a continued move towards standardized testing and students demonstrating, by their performance on such tests, that their education in fact does match what one might have received in the more traditional college setting.  

The Future of Education
At the heart of Robb’s notions is the need for a “productive educational system that produces high quality graduates” but does so “at a small fraction (an order of magnitude less) of the current costs.” In addition, moving to online, just-in-time formats, would perhaps offer the kind of flexibility that is needed if workers, and our educational systems, are “to meet the challenges of a rapidly mutating global economy.”  

Robb even goes so far as to toss around a potential cost of $20.00 a month. While that seems a bit beyond the realm of possibility, the rest offers strong food for thought.

In fact, he might have hit one more proverbial nail on the head. While his ideas as to where education could head have been speculated by others before, his idea that the current higher ed financial crisis could be a catalyst for major change seems dead on.

In fact, in our history, once it has become clear that we can do something as well if not better at far less cost, the entrepreneurial spirit has taken off. Tougher financial times always place a demand on innovation, making us wonder:

Will education continue to be immune?

Or will technology finally intercede and lead one of the last bastions of our society to finally consider new, more cost-effective models?

Flickr photos courtesy of mrplough and metaweb.

1 comment

1 joseph thibault { 01.30.09 at 11:57 am }

Awesome article. This makes me really think about the value of credits, one of the widgets that contribute to the end product: graduation. The disparity of credit cost across colleges says a lot about the “value” of education. For a lot of schools it seems that they just pick a high price and run with it…can they really justify the breakdown?

I work for a company that gets credits for online courses from 2 colleges currently. They are fully accredited. From one the credits are 50 bucks. The other sells us their credits for 92 dollars. Granted this cost covers only the approval of courses and the administrative process of providing transcripts to the students and not the full course cost. But paired with online content it helps us keeps costs much much lower. If Harvard sold us credits for 50 bucks (and maintained control over content and faculty as our partners do now) the end result would be much the same: high quality and much lower prices.

I’m on board with the bubble theory. Though that only makes our financial future that much more grim.

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