Brave New Learning

libraryHigher 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)

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  1. I find two problems with your dystopia (it is nothing less than this). First, you succumb to the temptation of predicting the future. I think this is a mistake. Second, your construction rests on two assumptions that I think are shaky. You assume that learning can take place without the presence of physical bodies — especially the body of a mentor. And, you assume that the reason parents send their children to college is to learn. Rather, parents don’t really know why they send children to live in a college and college town. But I suspect it is because they want them to experience something they themselves might have experienced and which they cannot put into words. In sum, while your projections might be correct at one level, I think you underestimate the “magic” of teaching, learning, and college.

  2. Naeem, I think you overestimate the “magic” of classroom teaching. How many classrooms do you really think the “magic” is happening in? Furthermore, the “magic” can happen in a variety of situations and through different mediums, even without the presence of physical bodies. Have you ever read a good book, and experienced the “magic”?

  3. Thanks for this work of imagination – I find it prescient, & especially agree with the assumption that corporations will dominate the economy, and the fortunes of youth via a job interview (unless there is a countervailing social movement toward popular empowerment).

  4. I’d like to second Naeem’s comments, especially his remarks about the temptation to predict the future. What you have here, in the guise of prognostication, is really a symptomatic account of the already existing present, a picture of what should probably be called, straightforwardly, the class struggle in education: a cybernetic, algorithmically controlled training for the many, a ‘critical’ and, more properly ‘capitalizable’ education for the elites. This is ALREADY the case. Here I will add one note: I’ve been the last ten days in Seattle and Portland, the land of Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, etc. The number of people sleeping on the streets, begging, etc. is simply appalling. What’s more, the sheer amount of unemployment, under-employment, precarious employment, etc. is staggering. So there is a geo-economic phenomenon brewing (yes, there are lots of breweries!) here. The elites are ‘located’, while the vast majority serves them and maintains the location. Indeed, one of the more stunning exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum is Victoria Haven’s “Proposed Land Use Action,” part of which records her own forced nomadism as an artist in Seattle (can one, the exhibit asks, really live inside a mix tape?). So the picture painted by Ulises of virtual education, cut-throat interviews, etc. is neither utopia nor dystopia; it is simply a delineation of what education already is. The struggle then, may be more over ‘place’ than network apologists would like to hear. Why else the domestic use of drones? Why else the occupy movement? So a demand for in situ, embodied education isn’t about ‘magic’, it’s about the socius itself, a political-ontological demand. These are scattered thoughts, so sorry about that. But what U’s scenario misses is the struggle, the battle for the future, not an inevitability.

  5. All I was trying to do was describe a credible “alternate reality” which, as Bennet suggests, is informed by lots of things that are already happening. So this wasn’t really about predicting the future, to the extent that the future is already here. Whether we interpret this as utopia or dystopia simply indicates where each one of us is coming from.

    Obviously, the “alternate reality” I describe is not something I would like to live in. But I also think there will be room for the “struggle” Tom and Bennet talk about. Frankly, I do believe that there are lots of things broken with education, and I think it’s a good thing that the online learning revolution will disrupt some of those things and shake our complacency. I also believe we can use even “bad” technologies like online learning to achieve something positive in the face of the incoming wave. That much is certain: the wave is coming, and we won’t be able to keep doing things the way we are doing them now.

  6. I guess even job interviews will become less important or/and frequent as (thanks to new media and neoliberalism) work will become more liquid.

    The seemingly growing trend of self-directed and -employed or quasi-selfemployed work (contract as subcontractor) will create a more internalized understanding of learning as investment for the future.

    Maybe all that self-learning stuff (moocs, ubiquitious learning, social media learning) will even tempt more people into becoming an entreployee.

    Thanks, Ulises, for inciting me to speculate.

  7. Fear and loathing in academia:
    The future is here, embrace it, protect it (i.e. Corporate forces will ultimately try to monetize and thus create walled gardens of information; doing so will kill the Internet as we know it.
    The Internet is a wonderful generative platform. Institutions need to gather and protect the democratization of information, not fear it…

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