“People are all over this idea lately,”
writes Paul Graham about the idea of replacing universities with technological utopias of an undetermined nature:
“I think they’re onto something. I’m reluctant to suggest that an institution that’s been around for a millennium is finished just because of some mistakes they made in the last few decades, but certainly in the last few decades US universities seem to have been headed down the wrong path. One could do a lot better for a lot less money.”
It’s certainly easy to do the same things that universities do for a lot less money, but will technology necessarily make academia better? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters anymore. The people who control politics and higher education in America are going to impose radical restructuring on academia not because they want to do it better, but because they want to do it cheaper. Whether the changes they institute in the name of cost-cutting prove better or worse for education in the end is completely irrelevant to their goals.
More importantly, they and ed tech industry that wants their business don’t care who they hurt in the process of making their fantasy the new reality. This piece includes a term coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter that gets at this mindset well:
[C]oming up with new educational models is hard to do if you’re already working pretty hard teaching the existing program. But there’s no stopping this sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” and I’d hate to be working for the educational equivalent of Polaroid — a brilliant and innovative company that proved unable to adapt to a rapidly changing technological frontier.
Creative destruction is still destruction, and you can’t fight destruction with resignation. You fight creative destruction by putting forward a different set of values – a set of values that emphasizes learning over destruction for its own sake. I don’t like the idea of giving up without a fight, particularly when it’s my job that’s potentially on the chopping block.
If you’ve got Amazon as an analogue for these massively open courses, there is still a model where people actually go into bookstores because sometimes they want to touch, or they like hanging out, or there’s other value offered by that. What it means is that the university needs to rethink what it’s doing, how it’s doing it.
I say if you play their game by their rules, then you’ve already lost. After all, they’re the ones carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. If we carry them too, we won’t make it with anyone either.