Higher Education’s “Napster” moment is quickly approaching. Soon, saying that learning can only happen in accredited classrooms in exchange for a hefty sum of money will be like saying that music should only be listened to at expensive concerts, and telling those darn kids to stop downloading all those songs illegally. What follows is neither utopia nor dystopia, but simply a half-serious prediction of where things might be headed… quickly.
In the near future, college degrees will become unimportant. It won’t matter where you went to college, or even if you went to college. That the Internet will make this possible by making quality content available at a low cost hardly merits debating at this point.
These things have been said before, of course, but not much has been said about what will replace a college degree. It will be this: the job interview. We are no longer talking about your grandad’s job interview, however, or nothing we are familiar with today (i.e., filling out a form and meeting a couple of people). Instead, the job interview will become a week-long contest where applicants show what they know, what they are capable of doing, and are ranked accordingly. It will include lengthy exams, personality tests, group exercises, creative assignments, detailed simulations, and an army of tests intended to measure everything from know-how to moral character (I’m not saying those tests will be accurate; I’m just saying they will be treated as such).
Think of the job interview as an academic version of the Hunger Games. It will be the SAT on steroids. It will be the do-or-die moment for young people: those who are not immediately eliminated will be categorized and offered jobs that match their skills. The rest will be offered lower positions. In order for this to happen, a new and very profitable industry will emerge to help employers administer these job interviews, categorize the applicants, and match them with the best offer. Headhunting will begin at an early age.
Cheating will be impossible at the job interview, because the same person who shows up at the interview will be the same person expected to show at the job (I guess body doubles and plastic surgery would be a way to cheat, but it will be too much hassle).
Instead of saving for college tuition, people will save to send their kids to these interview camps. Scholarships will be available to make sure talent can be recruited from everywhere. If things work well, the self-taught kid from an urban ghetto will have her shot at participating in one of these interviews. Of course, things never work that well, and some will point out the ways in which the interview process is biased.
In any event, employers will stop asking for college transcripts. Instead, they will want to see a robust portfolio on online courses and modules the applicant has completed. More importantly, employers will want to see a solid list of internships and recommendations (internships in this case will mean work paid at very low wages for the purpose of hands-on apprenticeship). Yes, it will still be possible to inflate and lie in these portfolios, but in the end that won’t help your performance during the grueling job interview.
This system of internships means students will start to work right after high school, and high school will actually become more important than it is today, occupying the place of college in some ways: those who can afford to will send their kids to elite schools, while the rest will have to make do with public schools. The internship system also means a surge of cheap young labor, which will have disastrous consequences for older workers.
This scenario revolves around the assumption that students will be able to study whatever they want, whenever they want, from a large menu of free or low-cost learning materials on the Internet. We are not talking about the local community college offering a cheap online course on, say, robotics. We are talking about an elite institution offering a free course on robotics, open to anyone who wants to take it, taught by an expert in the field. Which one would you choose?
Education will be dead. Learning will, hopefully, be very much alive. The former involves an institution deciding what students should know. The latter means students will be individually responsible for figuring out what they need to know, in a self-motivated and self-directed process. Students will get help occasionally from paid tutors, but they will mostly learn from each other and evaluate each other’s work. There will be nothing more valuable than a good study partner (even if he or she is thousands of miles away), and learning will continue to be social. But of course we know that digital networks are changing the meaning of “social.”
Competition will be cut-throat, motivation will be largely economic, and we can only hope that somewhere in there individuals realize that they need more than job skills to thrive. Fortunately, there will be plenty of online offerings in the arts and humanities, and the good ones will be as popular as the courses in business administration.
Of course, this means that most colleges will collapse (which will, among other things, seriously impact the economy of small college towns). Residential colleges will be a thing of the past, something reserved for the elites. Perhaps some colleges will take a cue from how the music industry responded to piracy by promoting more concerts, and they will offer conferences, camps, and workshops that promise to give applicants a competitive edge on the job interview. But this will only represent a fraction of what the revenue stream used to be.
The colleges that survive will be the ones with a good brand name, just like with newspapers. Even those universities will shrink considerably, since teaching will no longer be part of their mission. This means research will become even more central, and the best universities will be the ones to hire the best minds, support their research, and allow them to produce the best possible educational materials to be delivered as MOOCs, or whatever comes after MOOCs. Of course, to become a college “professor” you won’t need a college degree. You will just have to show up for the interview.
(Photo credit: Dave Morrow, Creative Commons)