This is a great moment to think carefully about the purpose of the university. Especially for those who are associated with it. But then, we (they?) have been told this before. And we might be tempted to wait and see if the recent developments in online learning are yet another storm in a water-glass, which will pass, leaving the institution relatively unchanged. I believe that would be a mistake. The risk is too high that this is a different storm. California has opened the flood-gates to allowing online course equivalency, and others will follow. This is not a moment to nail down our windows, but a moment of tremendous opportunity to weigh in, on behalf of the idea of the university.
Technology offers the university two directions. One is characterized by efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and re-organization into its component parts. The other imagines an open ecosystem of learning experiences that form around the interests and passions of the individual learners. The first strives to eliminate friction and slack, the second celebrates unexpected connections, detours and serendipity. Both are well-intentioned and believe they provide the solution to improving learning opportunities for more people.
Option 1 – The Travel Service
In the world of the highly efficient travel service, we have a map of all knowledge and we know all the roads, train tracks and flight paths a learner can take. Using a wealth of data, we move learners from point A to point B in the most efficient and cost-effective way. In the perfect system, nobody ever gets lost. Incentive systems provide motivation and guidance to help learners stay on the road. As Salman Khan said, “just the wording of the badging or how many points you get for doing something, we see […] tens of thousands of fifth graders or sixth graders going one direction or another, depending what badge you give them.” Travel agents (most of them software agents) help us get where we want to go. Learners choose from a rich menu of packaged learning trips, and there is something to suit every budget or available time, including two week immersions, or 3-year bed & breakfast. Learners “complete” these trips rather than “explore” new terrain. Popular destinations include maximum employability or life enrichment.
Some of this exists already, but proponents hope that driven by data, machine learning and online courses we can get much much better, more efficient, and cheaper. But there is an alternative, that we can see if we look to the early days of the web for inspiration.
Option 2 – Euro-rail
Euro-rail is a train ticket that allows passage on any of Europe’s long-distance trains for a certain period of time. It is also an experience of youth and freedom and summer that creates memories, which never fade. Learners start with only a vague idea of the major destinations they want to reach. They meet people along the way, make new friends (kiss someone whose language they don’t speak) and change plans. There is a lot of staying up all night with best friends (old and new), marveling at the sun as it comes up in a foreign country of new ideas, and debating the purpose of life. There is also a fair amount of getting in trouble, and figuring out ways to get out of trouble. And one doesn’t so much just learn about the ideas and places one visits and the people one meets, but gets to try out new steps, test new habits, and experiment with new ideas. Euro-rail is a life-changing experience. And so is learning. Travelers and learners return from their journeys as different people: richer in memories, experiences, friends (and with a bag full of extremely dirty laundry).
While option 2 sounds more like hobo academy than the ivy leagues, the skills we develop on euro-rail–to engage with other people, to identify interesting things to do, to follow our passion, to overcome obstacles, to know when to ask for help–are the skills our societies and economies need today. Creative solutions to immense challenges can only be discovered by creative and resourceful thinkers and makers, not by diligent timetable readers.
In learning, as in great travel, there is a magic that we can’t quite explain. Online technology has great potential to bring this magic to many more people. We get a glimpse of what it can look like in the many thriving communities of practice that collaborate online. Yet most of the new online learning initiatives point us in a very different direction, the direction of the travel agency. And that is why it is important to engage with the debate and ask ourselves what we want the institution to be, an efficient travel agency or an experience that changes lives.