Kevin Carey is an American higher education writer and policy analyst. He is serving as Director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization based in Washington, D.C. We asked Kevin about his recent, provocative book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.
Before we get to the substance of the book, I’d like to ask about its reception. If you’re like most writers, you are surprised by some of the interpretations of your work. What responses did you not anticipate?
Most of the book takes place in the past and the present, telling the story of how American colleges and universities became what they are and how information technology might allow them to become something new. In the last two chapters, I present some ideas about what the future might bring. As I see it, some students will learn mostly online, particularly as human-computer interaction and digital learning environments improve. But many will continue to attend in-person institutions that provide direct relationships with peers, teachers, and mentors. Those institutions won’t, however, have to be colleges as we know them today. In other words, the future of higher education won’t be solitary, with everyone but an elite few learning alone in front of machines. Some of the criticism of the book has left out that last part, which is disappointing. Then again, it’s been out for less than a month, so maybe people haven’t gotten all the way to the end yet.
The future of higher education you present in “The End of College” places more responsibility on individual learners to design and follow-through on their own studies. Self-direction has long been an instructional ideal - we want students to take responsibility for their own learning. But there’s a fear that they simply won’t, at least not to the extent required in the scenario you’ve laid out in “The End of College”.
People vary a great deal in their educational skills and motivational constructs. Some of them need a lot more support, or different kinds of support, than others. Existing colleges are often impersonal and cookie-cutter in how they treat students, and I think the future will provide more opportunities for customization, personalization, and variation in organizational philosophy. Traditional colleges are less diverse than they like to believe — they share a great deal of the same organizational DNA.
I also think there’s an important distinction between “design” and “follow-through.” Pretty much everyone needs guidance on the design of their studies. Effective pure auto-didacticism is rare. In many ways, that’s the very definition of education: creating an environment and set of relationships that deliberately guide people in the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind. On the follow-through side, I think simply being better will accomplish a great deal. Good education challenges people to work hard and move out of their comfort zones, but doesn’t push them past the threshold of total frustration. That’s crucial and not easy to accomplish, which is exactly why people like the cognitive tutor designers at Carnegie Mellon are working to solve the problem.
So there’s no reason to believe the future of higher education will reduce the amount of necessary support that students receive. Quite the opposite.
It’s been suggested that your vision for higher education is best suited to well-supported, above average students – leading to a sharper class divide. Poorer students get MOOCs, and the 1% get 4 years at Yale. How do we ensure that this isn’t the case?
Only the 1% get 4 years at Yale now. That’s the way it has always been, and always will be, as long going to Yale means living in a faux-Gothic building in New Haven, Connecticut. So the question is, can we radically expand the number of people of people who have access to the educational riches of Yale, and institutions like it? The answer is clearly “yes.” You can already access the lectures, courses, syllabi, assignments, and exams at Yale, for free. That problem has been solved. The question, then, is what additional educational resources does Yale offer, and can we provide them to many students at an affordable price? The existence of organizations like the Minerva Project, which is just as selective as Yale and also provides a rich liberal arts curriculum, for about one-third the tuition, suggest that we can. There can be many more organizations like that.
A common characteristic of discussions about change in higher education is the tendency for lines to be drawn between commentators and initiatives from within higher education (e.g. faculty) and those outside (e.g. think-tanks, entrepreneurs). Several of the people and initiatives you highlighted in the book are from outside higher ed proper (even some of the MOOC providers felt compelled to step outside of their institutions to bring something to the masses). And you, as an analyst at a think-tank, might also be considered an outsider. Is this divide significant? What might be its’ origins?
It’s significant, but it can be overstated. Anant Agarwal left a great, prestigious job as the director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to head up edX. This involved moving from a building on the MIT campus to a building located one block away from the MIT campus. I interviewed Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX, in his office in the Harvard natural sciences building. He hasn’t gone anywhere. He said to me, “HarvardX is Harvard. It is us.” The West Coast MOOC providers have definitely stepped outside the academy into the world of for-profit, venture-backed companies, but that’s an incredibly porous border. The companies are located in Palo Alto and some of the founders still teach at Stanford.
That said, it’s not surprising that people who are currently employed by colleges are only going to go so far in agreeing with the thesis of a book titled “The End of College.”
In a review of your book, Don Heller wrote the following:
“In his claim that MOOCs and other online learning materials will replace colleges and universities, Carey also provides a very narrow view of the goals of higher education. A bachelor’s degree is more than just a collection of individual courses; college — when done right — also satisfies other developmental objectives, including extracurricular learning, developing interpersonal communication skills (of both the online and face-to-face variety), and instilling a sense of an individual’s role in a democratic society.”
This is a common criticism of online higher education. But it’s also odd given that online higher education didn’t set out to supplant all aspects of the traditional college experience – its’ focus is instruction. On the one hand, I recognize that meeting your spouse or having inebriated conversations with other students at the campus pub is important – it was for me. But isn’t also the case that these extracurricular dimensions of higher education are primarily accidents of history – rather than by design. Is it the case that our institutions set out to provide instruction, but these other dimensions then began to form around the core mission?
Per my response above — I have a lot of respect for Don as a scholar of education but I think his critique ignores some of what I say at the end of the book. I quote from some of the relevant parts of the book here http://www.edcentral.org/universityofeverywhere/ in explaining why. In short: there’s no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds, online and in-person, for a lot less money than traditional colleges and universities charge today.
If alternative credentials grow in stature and students gain access to more information about the actual learning gains that a particular provider can offer, are we setting in motion a highly competitive education market (i.e. informed consumers with choice)? Are our institutions ready for this? Will they allow it?
Yes, No, and It won’t be up to them. We need a competitive market in providing students a great education. We really don’t have one now. Educational institutions are complicated and hard to understand and most consumers are naive. There’s a dangerous conflation of price and quality. Existing institutions are theoretically in a great position to take advantage of this opportunity, because they employ a lot of smart, knowledgeable educators and have brand names that people trust. But many are deeply committed to not changing, are they are likely to struggle. They’ll fight opening up the market to new credentials, for obvious reasons of self-interest, but that’s not a fight that can be won forever. If you’re battling against better information, your days are numbered.